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Philemon is in his Riddling Hall; and therefore he is riddling.

“Consider this: may any touch Our Imperial Majesty without permission?” he asks.

The assembled philosophers rumble, no.

“Yet does a man’s shadow not cling to his feet?”

“Not when he skips,” chirps a little girl, as the crowd gapes around her.

“You again!” sniffs Philemon. “Well, consider this: in my Riddling Hall I am lit with a thousand lanterns, my shadow trapped under my feet! Can I not be said to have conquered darkness?”

“Well, if you trap your shadow in a box,” asks Corbin, “what does that make you?”


Conventional methods of hat-removal having failed completely, Philemon opens the task to the county’s finest natural philosophers.

“The die-press leaves plenty of earspace,” drawls the first presenter, “now.”

“No,” says Philemon.

“We lure the hat off with premium peanut butter,” chortles the second. “Never cheese!”

“No,” says Philemon.

“And when we’re done with the circular saw,” says the third, “the masking tape–”

“No no!” says Philemon. “No!”

The day’s last applicant is a small and serious girl.

“Hello,” says Philemon, curious.

“You’re not going to like hearing this,” says Corbin, looking–not without kindness–at his perfectly naked head.


Some of the falling stars are big: the Governor’s mansion takes one and becomes a smoking hole. Some of the stars are a spark shower; boys chase them through the woods, but the wet loam they kick up always puts the stars out.

Some stars are just right. Corbin catches them in the pouch of her jumper, enough for a bowl full. She pours milk on the stars and eats them with a spoon.

When she’s done she looks up, and serious. Her head is full of fusion. She gets out her scooter.

She has a lot of work to do.


Somewhere a bell rings, and Karen stands. “Jerk,” she adds, and walks away.

An eleven-year-old girl rolls up next to Andre, who has his chin in his hands. The girl has big dark eyes and a scooter. Her name is Corbin.

“What’s the matter?” she asks.

“The usual,” sighs Andre. “I cast a spell so she’ll go out with me, I mention that pronouncing the longest word in English will break it and bam! ‘Pneumo-ultra-microscopic-silico-volcano-coniosis’ and she’s gone. Stupid Google.”


“I should’ve picked something harder to say,” says Andre glumly.

“I think you’re addressing the wrong problem, Andre,” says Corbin.


Corbin rolls up to them on a scooter. She looks about eleven, with dark hair and serious eyes.

“–In an hour,” Thierry is saying, “it won’t matter! We bet our lives!

“We don’t have to untie it if we run–hello?” snaps Guido. “Yes, little girl?”

They’re standing over a tangled rope-pile, topped by a knot as big as her head.

“There are two ways to untie every knot,” Corbin says. Guido follows her gaze to a wall: there’s a glass-fronted firebox there, and inside, an axe. He looks back at her, astounded.

She’s already gone, rolling downhill and away.