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This is a riddle posed by a dragon in the short story Maybe Just Go Up There and Talk to It by Scott Lynch. The dragon does not give the answer to the riddle and it is entirely possible that it has no answer and the author is just toying with the reader.

Since the story does not give the solution I cannot confirm any answer as correct, but I'm hoping there will be an answer sufficiently plausible that I'll find myself thinking Oh, of course!.

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    $\begingroup$ @Randal'Thor SFF and Puzzling in one! :-) $\endgroup$ Jan 16 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ I am confused by the expression "thin as night". Is it a common phrase? $\endgroup$
    – DrD
    Jan 16 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ @drd sounds like the night air is thin and cold? $\endgroup$ Jan 16 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe ask the author? scott[a t]scottlynch[d o t].us $\endgroup$ Jan 17 at 23:52
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see why this question has been marked as off-topic. It contains both a riddle and an invitation to a discussion of the role of a riddle in a story. $\endgroup$ Jan 18 at 21:37

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First thought is

Hair

Because

It's thin. It's soft. It will break the teeth of a comb eventually, but hopefully your Welsh comb will make it through undamaged.

Caveat: I have no idea what "thin as night" means. "Soft as sand" isn't going to work if I go by the Mohs scale either.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think this makes more sense than the other answer, in view of the specific word choice "break the teeth". $\endgroup$ Jan 16 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, and hair black as night is a common cliché in fantasy books. $\endgroup$ Jan 17 at 5:58
  • $\begingroup$ This is my answer too! $\endgroup$
    – Konchog
    Jan 17 at 13:51
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Given the context of the story (available here), maybe:

an empty promise.

Because it

has no substance

offers no support

stops speech

doesn't stop action

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Sugar

Maybe my reasoning is a bit too grounded in our world, but here goes:

"Thin as night": Grains of sugar can be small... yeah, this is a bit of a stretch
"soft as sand": Sugar is quite similar to sand if you hold it in your hand and it's all dry
"will break the teeth": Cavities
"but not the hand": Sugar on skin won't do much, especially on non-sensitive areas like the hand. There are even "sugar scrubs" that some people use to make their skin better, although after a few Google searches, I'm not sure how to find reliable information on whether they actually work or are beneficial...

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    $\begingroup$ My thought on the first part is that spread thinly, it looks like stars in the night sky. $\endgroup$
    – windblade
    Jan 18 at 10:42
  • $\begingroup$ If you want evidence that sugar helps clean the skin, try it. Get your hands covered in something difficult to remove, such as sump oil. Clean it off with washing up liquid and sugar (or salt, you just need "bits"). Nothing else short of specalised products will work as well. $\endgroup$
    – User65535
    Jan 18 at 13:59
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It seems like the answer could be:

Time

Because:

"thin as night"

seems to mean something intangible.

"soft as sand"

is reminiscent of an hourglass. And, one doesn't necessarily notice the passage of time as it softly and quietly slides past.

"will break the teeth"

Time will break the teeth of a clock's gears, as they wear down through the ages. Also, the riddle specifies "the teeth", not "your teeth" or "one's teeth", so it seems to imply that an object or concept is being affected, not a creature that has teeth. And lastly, the riddle says the answer "will" break the teeth, implying that this won't happen until the future.

"but not the hand"

but the clock's hands are likely to survive even after the clock has stopped. And again, the riddle seems to imply an object or concept is being affected, instead of a creature that has a hand.

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A somewhat different take, but perhaps it's

a smile

because

Smiles can be thin, though means the are insincere.
Smiles can also be seen as soft (though if it does mean rough like sand can be, a harder, rougher smile may be menacing)
Break the teeth may mean to show them, break into view. A smile would not show or cause a hand to break into view
Coming from a Dragon could be a warning that what starts as a light, disarming smile could lead to danger you don't want from a dragon...it bearing its teeth to you

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Can it be

A piece of string

Because

It is very thin.
It is soft if the fabric is right (silk or cotton)
Can be used to pluck out baby teeth (The string and doorknob method).
Can't break your hand (but can be broken by it).

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    $\begingroup$ This is probably too literal. The solution, if there is one, is likely to be metaphorical or otherwise figurative. $\endgroup$ Jan 16 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, agree with Daniel, also I don't think the method you describe breaks the tooth (just removes it). $\endgroup$
    – hexomino
    Jan 16 at 16:16
  • $\begingroup$ @hexomino You mean figuratively breaks it not literally ;-) $\endgroup$
    – RedBaron
    Jan 16 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ Neither, I would say. $\endgroup$
    – hexomino
    Jan 16 at 17:57
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I'm going to go.for

Rain

as a first try. Because:

thin as night and soft as sand Rain can be thin and soft indeed. will break the teeth there are many monolithic rock formations known as "teeth". They can be caused - and also eroded/destroyed - by water erosion, and therefore at times by rain. but not the hand It might erode rock, but your hand won't be hurt by a rain shower.

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What about

Candy floss/cotton candy

It mostly fits, especially if we think of "break the teeth" as

rotting them away if you eat too much.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for a reasonable guess in our world, but the riddle was posed by a dragon in a fantasy-fiction world where this might not exist. $\endgroup$ Jan 17 at 2:41
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Obviously, the answer is

sand

thin as night

rather metaphorically, but fine sand is thin and of course, there is black sand

and soft as sand

duh

will break the teeth

sand, if it gets mixed into your food can wear down your teeth pretty thoroughly - this plagued ancient Egyptians with excessive dental damage, with the sand either blown from the desert or introduced by grinding the grain with sandstone hand mills

but not the hand?

handling sand is, of course, perfectly safe (unless in very unusual situations)

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And another:

Logic.
(It should appeal to a riddling dragon!)

Because:

Logic is really thin, in fact razor-like in its approach. Whole arguments can turn on the meaning of one word, or one line of reasoning. It's soft, like sand, that piles up and only then becomes formidable. You can cut (break) your teeth on it (as the saying goes) in childhood and throughout life, as you learn, and it'll never relent from giving you new lessons to cut your teeth on in vain, if you become arrogant about your abilities, but you'll never physically cut your hand (or any other body part) on it.

It's just too dragon-y an answer not to give!

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There are similar answers already but I would like to be more precise:

Cocoa powder

Explanation:

Thin as night -it means dark colour and maybe also the size of its soft grains.
Soft as sand -in its powder form.
Will break the teeth -if you make chocolate or other sweets.
But not the hand -because it is not very strong material itself at all.

Additionally:

One could say that such a thing may not exist in a fantasy world. If so, why there is usually wheat and rye but cocoa tree not? As I can see, heroes and adventurers eat bread and drink beer very often. Fantasy worlds may have similar flora to ours or may not.

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There can be only one answer, the best answer, the answer to defeat all other answers:

A silent fart

Because

Thin and invisible like night air

Soft, even fluffy

Will make you gnash your teeth from the smell

Won't escape if you stick your finger in your butthole

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