Callias was the local, but it was Ollivander who led the way through the busy streets. He had only a hazy notion of where the Academy lay, but Callias seemed content to follow his navigational choices, so they were probably good enough. What attention he could spare went mainly on people-watching: a raucous argument between neighbours; a man selling figs door-to-door; a curly-haired actor chanting his lines. Two slaves carried a vast amphora, one to each handle, while Ollivander himself held up one end of a conversation about the feathers of the equine descendants of the legendary Pegasus, a subject on which Callias turned out to be promisingly knowledgeable. The mysteries of advanced magic, it seemed, were opening up around him like so many flowers, and it would have been almost wasteful not to sample them all.
Even this greatest of cities was not really big enough to get lost in, and before long they had reached the sacred olive grove outside the city walls. The trees grew thickly, obscuring a low building behind: it was not until they were almost upon it that Ollivander was able to read the inscription he had known would be there above the entrance.
Yes, this was the place, all right. No-one seemed to be about, except for a single slave who had been sitting in the shade inside the doorway, idly watching their approach.
“Greetings, Amyntas,” Callias called out. “This is Ollivander, who hopes to become one of us. Is anyone important here today?”
“Good afternoon, young sir,” replied the door-slave, scrambling to his feet to reveal dark eyes and a wiry physique. “Your friend Eudoxus is around somewhere, casting horoscopes, I believe. And the master himself might turn up in a bit. He hasn't scheduled any lectures today, but he did mention that he might drop in to try out a new argument or two.”
“The master can try them out on me, if he likes,” said Ollivander at once. “No time like the present, is there, Callias?”
Callias smiled patiently. “Or the near future. Let's wait under here” -- he gestured towards an olive tree -- “where we can catch Plato when he arrives.”
It was a good plan. They were still discussing winged horse breeds (“It's not the flight feathers that make the best wands, my father says--”) when Ollivander's attention was diverted again by two men in white woollen cloaks coming up the path. One was tall, thin, and young: he was listening, and nodding earnestly from time to time. The other was of stout middle age, and breathing forcefully as he expelled a steady stream of words for the edification of his one-man audience.
“Plato!” called out Callias, jumping to his feet and trotting towards the new arrivals. “Perseus! We have a new scholar among us -- come and meet him!”
Plato paused, catching his breath as he waited for Callias to approach. Ollivander, following behind, felt Plato's glance fall sharply on him, and hastily composed his thoughts. It wouldn't do to be self-conscious, not at this crucial moment.
“Ollivander of Croton,” he managed, remembering just in time to hold out his hand for Plato to shake.
“Greetings, Ollivander,” the great man murmured. “I have never been to Croton, but no matter: we philosophers are citizens of the world, for the essences of things are the same in all places and all times. Is there a particular topic you wish to pursue among us? Or are you one of those, like Perseus here, whose mind is apt to all subjects alike?”
“I think -- Transfiguration,” said Ollivander confidently, trying to appear as though he had not had to think up this answer on the spot. “The Transfigurer shows us that nothing has an absolute nature: that which is large may become small; that which is moist, dry; that which is fair, grotesque. Then, too--”
Perseus' face showed confusion; Plato's was displeased. Callias looked as if he'd have liked to interrupt, but didn't quite dare. Evidently, Ollivander was extemporizing in a poorly-chosen direction; he hastily picked another.
“--Divination,” he continued firmly, naming a field as different from Transfiguration as possible. “To look into the future, to read the intentions of the gods in a libation of wine or the entrails of a sacrifice, this surely is the truest magic of all.” He looked into Plato's troubled grey eyes, desperately seeking some approval, but there was none to be found there. “What do you think, Callias?”
“Would you say,” queried Plato carefully, as Callias hesitated, “that it is proper to tell fortunes?” His tone was one of mild concern. “Is it right to offer a man a glimpse of the future, if he desires it?”
“Yes, if one has the true sight. For by so doing, diviners fulfil their essential nature; divining is their purpose in life.” Ollivander was rather pleased with that last part; it sounded like something Plato himself might have said.
“Isn't it rather common that auguries and foretellings are vague and unhelpful, or even wrong?”
“True, more often than not.”
“What you're saying, then, is that it's right to mislead people?” There was no accusation in Plato's voice, just a quiet intellectual curiosity.
“I wouldn't say that.” Too late, Ollivander remembered Plato's famous fondness for verbal traps. “Even a hint,” he persevered, “a faint suggestion of a chance to avoid misfortune, might be better than nothing at all, don't you think?”
“But should the misfortune mysteriously fail to eventuate, then that is the will of the gods, I suppose, and no fault of the sorcerer who gave the advice?”
“Well, yes.” Ollivander thought for a moment, then saw his chance to turn the tables on the master. “But surely, Plato, you aren't arguing” -- he imitated the other man's gentle, questing tone -- “that sorcery is not efficacious at all? That it is all in our heads, and not real?”
“Of course it is all in our heads,” declared Plato authoritatively, “and that makes it more real, not less. Is the setting sun real?”
“Yes. Yes, it surely is.”
“The rim of a wine-cup, is that real?”
“Yes...” Ollivander could tell he was being led down a fool's path again.
“The arc of a sling, wielded in anger?”
“Yes, that, too.” There was no way out.
“I suppose, then,” mused Plato contemplatively, “that the circle, which is all of these things and more, must be even more real than they are. But where will you find a circle, a true, ideal circle, unless it be inside your own head?”
Ollivander carefully reminded himself that he had come to Athens to learn from Plato, not to get the better of him in debate. “I think you're absolutely correct, my friend,” he said, with a forced smile. “It seems that every mage must be a philosopher as well, if he is to use magic with propriety.”
But that didn't seem to please Plato, either. “You will find, my friend,” he said with his first hint of asperity, “that in Athens we have moved on from the days when philosophers were magi. If you have come aspiring to be both, you are several generations too late. Tell me, can a skilled musician use music to make others unmusical?”
“I-- I don't see how.”
“Nor can a fire cool you. That is the function not of warmth, but of its opposite.”
“Yes, I suppose.” Ollivander felt like a novice swimmer in a strong river, swept away to a shore not of his choosing.
“How, then, could a philosopher teach magic, which is the opposite of reason?” Plato turned to Perseus, whose face had brightened with amusement at the delivery of this final line. “We'll begin shortly. Forgive us, young Ollivander” -- he spoke over his shoulder as he and Perseus moved towards the Academy's building -- “we have business here this evening.”
There was a pause.
“That -- could have gone better,” said Callias eventually, finding his voice at last. “You probably shouldn't have mentioned magic quite so much. Plato doesn't hold with it, you see.”
“So I gathered. But how can he not, when he -- wait” -- realisation bloomed at last -- “Plato isn't a wizard?”
“Goodness, no -- he hasn't a magical pore in his hide. Whatever made you think so?”
What, indeed? Remembered second-hand fragments of Plato's teachings flitted through Ollivander's brain, one after another in rapid succession. Ultimate Substances. Natural laws. Ideal geometric figures. Some of it had certainly sounded like magic.
“He doesn't even seem to like wizards very much.”
Callias laughed, without much mirth. “I don't often mention what my father does for a living around Plato, though he knows, of course. He thinks of our people as” -- a moment's thought -- “professional rivals.”
“What? Wizards and philosophers?”
“We're both in the same business, offering folk something a bit brighter and better than their ordinary lives. The sorcerer cures their sick children or tells them their destiny. The philosopher sweeps out the space between their ears and makes sense of the world. Any man with political or commercial ambitions needs both -- and if he should want to have an enemy cursed, either can do it for him, in their own ways. Which aren't so very different, really.” He scuffed his sandals in the dirt.
“It's all just words, then, this philosophy?” Ollivander tried hard not to sound plaintive. “There's no proper magic taught here at all?”
“There's a kind of magic in words, too, you know. A wand isn't the only way to heal your friends, or harm your enemies.”
“I didn't come here to heal or harm anyone,” muttered Ollivander. “Or to throw words about, as if they were spells in some kind of duel.” He glanced helplessly about him, but the two men were again alone except for Amyntas the door-slave, who was carefully looking elsewhere. From a distant fallow field came the sound of a woman scolding a child.
Ollivander's feet began to transport him away. He was heading back towards the city gate, though he felt strangely unaware of the direction; he'd been trying to reach the Academy for so long that in walking away from it he was instantly lost. Everything he knew about the place was mistaken, every scrap of rumour gleaned from travellers who'd passed through Athens and heard Plato speak and then taken ship for Croton. It was all a trick; one that he'd played on himself, mostly. Incredible, but true: there was no magic here.
“I'm studying mathematics,” offered Callias gamely, following behind him. “You might like it; there are some talented geometers here--”
Ollivander gave a short, harsh laugh. “Geometry?” He didn't look back. “I can square the circle whenever I want to using magic -- or at least, convince people that I've squared it, which seems to be much the same thing.”
Callias was quiet until they reached the city walls. “What will you do now?” he asked, as they passed through.
“I expect I'll think of something. I usually do.” The words were bold, but Ollivander knew they were empty; his head was too full of disappointment to think of anything just now. One thing he was sure of, though: he would not be going back down to the harbour and asking after Euthymios the Cretan, or his ship. There would have to be a better way than that.
“You can stay in my father's house tonight,” Callias offered a while later, as they skirted the Temple of Hephaestus. “No-one will mind, if you arrive with me. They'll all be glad to hear news from outside the city.”
“Thanks.” The day had been warm, but the clear sky foretold a chilly night. That was one problem solved, at least.
The city streets, filling with late-afternoon shadows, seemed much lonelier than they had a few hours earlier. Where was everyone? There were no boys returning from a day's learning in their pedagogues' houses, or slaves running errands; no beggars, even. It was as though the rest of Athens felt as tired and forlorn as Ollivander, and had withdrawn indoors for the evening.
Callias led them into a side alley, so narrow that a man could almost have touched the houses on each side with outstretched arms. It was even darker here, and Ollivander glanced upwards in dull surprise; surely the sun was not ready to set just yet? A breath of air touched his face, and he was astonished at how cold it was: it sighed of a hard winter's dawn, not this fine spring afternoon. And that, curling around a mud-brick wall further down the alley: was that mist?
Both men stood still for a moment, glancing quickly at each other and at the tenebrous something seeping into view around the corner ahead. All at once Ollivander was struck by his own hopeless foolishness: not an Academy scholar, not an Athenian citizen, he couldn't even go home without facing shame and ridicule. He would be miserable forever; it would be better if he died...
“Alastor!” shouted Callias harshly, breaking the silence. “Come on, get away from it!” He grabbed Ollivander's hand and dragged him back the way they had come. Ollivander stumbled the first few steps; then his brain began to work again. An Alastor: that explained the cold, and the terrible, unreasoning despair. Ollivander knew what to do, at least in theory. It was a difficult spell, and he had no confidence in his ability to cast it effectively. But he had done it before; perhaps he could again.
They reached a tiny square with a Hermes statue in the middle. The sculptor had modelled only Hermes' head, and the whole thing, plinth and all, was too small for one person to shelter behind, let alone two. But it would have to do. Ollivander drew his wand and looked back. There were two of the Alastores, huge cloaked figures, faceless beneath their hoods, and coming on frighteningly fast; he concentrated -- and in the moment before they were on him he glimpsed another figure behind them, cloaked in their darkness.
“Phobos!” he cried, changing his spell at the last possible moment. Simultaneously, Callias' voice called out beside him: “Barangiz Pedarkhande!” A great silver cloud leapt from Callias' wand and resolved itself into a dazzlingly bright hippogriff. The creature's shining beak opened in a silent squawk, and it charged into the mouth of the alley, which it almost filled.
Ollivander looked away; afterimages of the brilliant hippogriff danced on his eyes. When he opened them again, Callias was calmly putting away his wand, and the immediate threat appeared to have passed. The sun was back in the sky, where, Ollivander supposed, it must have been all along. The wretched despair he'd felt only a few heartbeats ago was gone. Better than gone, he realised after a moment: not only did he have nothing to be gloomy about, he was ideally placed, fortuitously free of all obligations in a city full of opportunities. Any number of advantageous things could happen to him now. Would happen, once he decided how best to bring them about.
“Nice move,” he said casually, confident once more.
“Thanks,” replied Callias modestly. He was breathing a little more heavily than usual, but seemed otherwise unshaken. “You'd have done the same for me, I'm quite sure.” He hesitated, then went on, “I don't mean to criticise -- you were under pressure, I realise -- but that was a rather odd choice of spell just now. Fear? Against an avenging ghost? You know, of course, that an Alastor fears nothing; nor can it be made afraid by magic.”
“I must have been mistaken,” muttered Ollivander awkwardly. The third assailant hadn't looked at all ghostly to him, but he had seen it only very briefly and indistinctly. Perhaps a Fear Charm -- all he'd been able to think of, under the circumstances -- hadn't been the best one to use against it. Perhaps it had never been there at all. “Let's get out of here. We need to get on with things.”
“True. Well, we're not far from my home now. I could use some bread and honey, and I daresay you could, too.”