John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

The road wound on, empty, towards Acromel. For some distance before it actually reached the city it ran contiguous with the river called Metamorphia, a fact known to rather few people, because although it seemed that this was the same river which poured in under the high black battlements of the city, it was not the same-for good and sufficient cause. It was the nature of the river Metamorphia to change the nature of things, and consequently it changed its own nature after flowing a prescribed number of leagues.

The traveler paused by a stone wall overlooking the dark stream, and meditatively regarded objects floating past. Some had been fishes, perhaps; others were detritus of the banks-leaves, branches, stones. Those which had been stones continued to float, of course; those which had been of a flotatory nature sank.

He broke a piece of stone from the crumbling parapet of the wall, and cast it down. The alteration it underwent was not altogether pleasant to witness.

He raised his eyes after a while, and descried a girl on the opposite bank, who had come forward out of a clump of trees while he was lost in contemplation. She was extremely beautiful. Moreover she had been at no pains to hide the fact, for she was dressed exclusively in her long, lovely hair.

“You also are aware of the nature of this river,” she said after regarding him for a little.

“I have been advised that the nature of the river is to change the nature of things,” the traveler conceded. “And consequently it changes its own nature also.”

“Come down with me, then, and bathe in it!”

“Why should you wish your nature changed?” was the reply. “Are you not beautiful?”

“Beautiful I am!” cried the girl passionately. “But I am without sense!”

“Then you are Lorega of Acromel, and your fame has spread far.”

“I am Lorega of Acromel, as you say.” She fixed him with her honey-colored eyes, and shrugged the garb of her hair more closely around her. “And how do men call you?”

“I have many names, but one nature. You may call me Mazda, or anything you please.”

“Do you not even know your own name, then? Do you not have a name that you prefer?”

“The name matters little if the nature does not change.”

She laughed scornfully. “You speak in resounding but in empty phrases, Mazda or whoever you may be! If your nature is unchangeable, give demonstration! Let me see you descend into the water of this river!”

“I did not say that,” murmured the traveler peaceably. “I did not say my nature was unchangeable.”

“Then you are a coward. Nonetheless, come down with me and bathe in this river.”

“I shall not. And it would be well for you to think on this, Lorega of Acromel: that if you are without sense, your intention to bathe in Metamorphia is also without sense.”

“That is too deep for me,” said Lorega unhappily, and a tear stole down her satiny cheek. “I cannot reason as wise persons do. Therefore let my nature be changed!”

“As you wish, so be it,” said the traveler in a heavy tone, and motioned with his staff. A great lump of the bank detached itself and fell with a huge splashing into the water. A wave of this water soaked Lorega from head to foot, and she underwent, as did the earth of the bank the moment it broke the surface, changes.

Thoughtfully, and a mite sadly, the traveler turned to continue his journey towards Acromel. Behind him, the welkin rang with the miserable cries of what had formerly been Lorega. But he was bound by certain laws. He did not look back.

Before the vast black gate of the city, which was a hundred feet high and a hundred feet wide, two men in shabby clothes were fighting with quarter-staffs. The traveler leaned on his own staff and watched them batter at one another for fully an hour before they both found themselves too weak to continue, and had to stand panting and glaring at each other to recover their breath.

“What is the quarrel between you?” said the traveler then.

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