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Kingdom of Without



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About The Book

A wily young thief must use her wits to survive futuristic, alternate history Beijing in this Les Misérables–inspired young adult cyberpunk that is perfect for fans of Six of Crows and Fullmetal Alchemist.

When Zhong Ning’er takes the job, she expects a smash-and-grab burglary she’s doing to make rent and help out a friend. What she doesn’t expect: a sad-eyed army boy who dreams of insurrection, a former rebel leader trapped inside a secret lab, a group of aspiring revolutionaries who are first collaborators, then compatriots, and then, perhaps, friends.

But this is Beijing, nearly a hundred and fifty years after General Yuan Shikai successfully declared himself emperor in 1915. His descendants rule the country from their seat in the imperial city, their gendarmerie—the Beiyang Army—run the streets, aided by cyborgs and the Brocade Guard. Walls have risen, dividing the city into districts called Rings—nominally only by geography, but in truth by class. Earthquakes devastate the northern farmlands, crops drown in the southern typhoons, and all over the country people are hooked on a drug they call Complacency.

As a Sixth Ring girl who watched previous uprisings crushed brutally by the court, Ning’er isn’t much of an optimist, and she’s certainly no revolutionary. But that might not be up to her—as the stakes get higher, the time for passivity is quickly running out, and she must decide if she wants to sit idly in her cynicism, or embrace the breathless, terrible possibility of hope.


Chapter 1: Phantoms CHAPTER 1 Phantoms
Getting around the city with only one leg, one arm, and not a single drop of Complacency to compensate for a pair of inconveniently missing limbs was—to Ning’er’s dismay—way harder than she remembered.

The wooden stick helped a little. You had to cling to the little things where you could. Sometimes literally. So Ning’er clung to that flimsy little cane with all her might. It might not be a real prosthetic, but it had kept her upright for two blocks straight, which Ning’er counted as a win, however feeble. She shook her head. What a way to spend a Saturday night in the Sixth Ring, mere blocks from dirt-cheap nightlife. Instead of trolling for free drinks, here she was, dragging her two-limbed—and honestly, probably pretty delirious—body toward the cave of a workaholic who hated drinking and was also almost definitely going to yell at her.

Ning’er sighed. It was a satisfyingly self-pitying little gust of air. “You absolute fool,” she reprimanded herself, clucking her tongue, which no doubt made her look even more like a madwoman than she already did. “Sell your illegal prosthetics, Ning’er.” She grunted as her stick scraped along the poorly paved street. “Don’t take the courtesy drugs the back-alley doctor offers for the pain, Ning’er.” Her balance wobbled precariously for a moment, then held. “You don’t want to end up back on Complacency like your old man, Ning’er.” Gingerly, she took one step, planted the stick, then took another.

It had been a very long time since she’d had any fewer than three decently functional limbs. Even before Ning’er had pawned her prosthetics—so, maybe an hour ago—she’d been used to getting herself banged up. It came with the territory when you lived in the Sixth Ring. If it wasn’t a bar fight in some seedy dive, it was wear and tear from hard labor or getting caught out after curfew by an aggressive patrol android. But usually, Ning’er’s body had the good sense to only fuck with one major injury at a time. And three good limbs outnumbered one bad one.

There wasn’t much you could do with one leg, one arm, and a wooden stick, though.

It would have been a dreadfully depressing state of affairs, if not for three things:

One, the guy who was—with any luck—about to yell at her was also a guy who could fix pretty much anything.

Two, his workshop was a reasonably easy walk from the butcher shop clinic that had torn Ning’er’s prosthetics from her body, so at least she didn’t have to travel too far.

And three, as she dragged her sad, sorry carcass onto the workshop doorstep, she saw a light flicker on inside.

A moment later, the latch on the door clicked.

“Took you long enough,” Ning’er rasped, before she pitched forward.

Powerful, well-tattooed arms caught her with the ease of long practice. The stick clattered aside. “??,” sighed Ge Rong. “Ning’er, haven’t you learned anything from the last time you sold my work on the black market?”

“First of all, how dare you automatically assume the blackness of the market. I could be a reformed citizen.” Ning’er attempted to pull herself upright with her remaining arm. “Maybe I became the mistress of a billionaire playboy and sent the prosthetics to his wife as a consolation gift.”

Ge Rong caught her before she could fall again, scooping her over his shoulder like a sack of rice. “I don’t think trolling the taitai population of Beijing counts as reforming.”

“Put me down,” Ning’er commanded the back of Ge Rong’s smock. He smelled like paint and metal shavings. “I feel very patronized!”

“You should have thought about that before you embarked on your newfound career as a Second Ring gold digger.” He dumped her unceremoniously onto one of his workshop stools, then paused. “You didn’t really, did you?”

Ning’er scoffed. “Please. Would I be here if I had actual legal means to get them replaced?” Goddamn, she’d forgotten how much phantom limb syndrome actually hurt after years of high-end prosthetic use. Her head sagged against the wall behind her. In a smaller voice, she confessed, “I needed the money. That dive where I’ve been playing barkeep pays absolute garbage.”

Ge Rong had his back turned, already rummaging through his inventory. “You can’t keep working shit jobs, then paying a literal arm and leg just to make rent, kid.”

“Ha ha, cute.”

“I’m serious.” He turned around, a prosthetic in each hand, screwdriver tucked behind one ear. Ning’er didn’t know whether to be horribly embarrassed or grudgingly touched that he kept spare samples of her exact size on hand. “Do you know how many amputees in the Lower Rings have to wait months at second-rate engineering shops just to make do with poor fits and worse mechanics on their prosthetics? And here you are, selling yours whenever you’re broke because you have the luxury of—”

“You. You are my one and only luxury in this life, A’rong.”

Ge Rong sighed. “I suppose that’s true, after a fashion,” he agreed wearily. “Doesn’t mean it’s good, or right. What happens to all the tips from that bar of yours?”

“What tips?” Ning’er quipped. Her shoulders slumped. “Business is slow. For obvious reasons.”

Ge Rong at least had the good grace to wince at the reminder. “Supply chains?”

“Supply chains.” Ning’er gave a ghastly little flourish with her free hand, miming a toast with a glass of imaginary wine. “Liquor shipments are completely unpredictable now. We nearly had a riot last week when we miscalculated for the post-work rush and ran out of bottom shelf beer. Management says we might have to shut down.” She pulled a face. “Or start buying even shittier beer. Literal worst part of those stupid earthquakes.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Ge Rong dryly. “It’s possible that the farmers whose homes, crops, and foreseeable livelihoods were permanently destroyed have it a tad worse.”

Ning’er scowled at him for just a split second before relenting. She sighed. “Noted.”

“What about your baba?” Ge Rong squatted before her. With careful, steady hands, he rolled up her empty trouser leg. “Maybe he could help you out.”

“My old man? Who sold my original arm and leg for a Complacency hit? The very same baba who landed us in this predicament in the first place?” Ning’er snorted. “Yeah, pass. Ouch!” She hissed as the tiny cybernetic cables of the new prosthetic bit into the spot where her thigh ended.

“Sorry, I’ll fix that.” Ge Rong’s screwdriver danced between deft fingers, readjusting the cables until the sting subsided. “What about finding other work?”

“You mean other customer service gigs? All dependent on shipping lines, so currently also fucked by the earthquakes?”

Ge Rong sighed. A brief tendril of guilt snaked through Ning’er at the weariness in his eyes. A’rong sighed a lot around her. He probably deserved a little less exhaustion in his life than what Ning’er regularly wrought, but he’d never done wrong by her. Risked more than he had to, in fact, to keep her on two functioning feet. Ge Rong was a real, once-in-a-generation talent. Those beautifully tattooed hands had earned a small fortune from the Second and Third Ringers who could afford his art, and probably a larger one from nouveau-riche Fourth Ringers affecting airs. He could have set up shop among his wealthy clients, renting a penthouse in the Third Ring, or buying a nice big apartment in the Fourth.

Instead, here he lived, in a shitty studio in a shitty Sixth Ring neighborhood, misusing his talent and resources to craft knockoff prosthetics for penniless miscreants like Ning’er. It was the kind of do-gooder nonsense that would destroy his career and earn him a hefty jail sentence if the court ever found out. Yet he’d never once turned Ning’er away from his workshop, no matter how many times he threatened and lectured.

“Well, you’ll have to figure something out, one way or another,” said A’rong. “This is the last set of prosthetics you’ll have from me.” Apparently, in addition to being an art and engineering savant, Ge Rong was also a mind reader.

He moved on to Ning’er’s arm, massaging the long-abused muscles of her shoulder to prepare for new prosthetic cables. He took a deep breath—Ning’er would bet her remaining organic limbs that he’d rehearsed in front of a mirror for this exact argument—and added: “You can’t keep selling your own limbs, and I can’t keep doing illegal biohacks to keep you afloat.”

“Why?” Ning’er didn’t normally like to push, but she knew more about Ge’s operations than most. “Your high-and-mighty supplier put a moratorium on charity work?”

“The Red Yaksha is my supplier, not my sovereign,” said Ge Rong, a little tartly. He clipped the cables into place, ignoring Ning’er’s yelp of protest as the cybernetics latched on to her shoulder. “No, I’m the one cutting you off. Barkeep’s privilege. You should know all about that.”

Ning’er stuck her tongue out at him. Experimentally, she gave her new metal fingers a little wiggle. The movement was crisp as ever. Ge Rong’s handiwork was still excellent. It twisted something inside her heart. “You said you were cutting me off last time, too,” she couldn’t resist pointing out. “And the time before that. What, you think third time’s the charm?”

“Fourth,” said Ge Rong, utterly devoid of humor. “And last.”

“Because the supply chains are just gonna magically un-fuck themselves?” Ning’er blew out a gust of frustrated air. “Come on, you’re smarter than that! Or have you somehow missed the protests that blow up every time the court sits on their pretty hands while the price of rice skyrockets? There are already rumors about imposing more curfews on the Lower Rings to squelch the protests, which is going to be super great for keeping a bar afloat—”

“There are other jobs out there.”

“That will hire a street urchin with no secondary school diploma, and no hope of a university degree? A’rong, you need to stop believing that—”

“My supplier needs a thief.”

Ning’er stopped mid-rant, the words frozen in her lungs. “One, I don’t do that anymore,” she said when she could breathe again. “And two, your supplier, you can’t mean—”

“The Red Yaksha?” A’rong raised his eyebrows at her. “I told you, he’s not my sovereign. When he wants something, he pays. Handsomely.”

Ning’er sucked in a slow breath, contemplating her options. The Red Yaksha was the most beloved hero of the Lower Rings: the anonymous savior who lurked, shadow-like, beneath the cover of night to steal from the Upper Rings and feed the poor. Ning’er might have dismissed his existence as bullshit if it hadn’t been for the scandalous hack on Chrysalis—the biggest manufacturer of android parts and state-of-the-art prosthetics—the same year Ning’er lost her organic limbs. The leak had been well-timed—whoever orchestrated the data theft had targeted cybernetic blueprints and components. Possessing a decent prosthetic wasn’t technically illegal in the Lower Rings, though the means to make them were well-guarded by draconian intellectual property laws that kept Upper Ring manufacturers rich.

But Chrysalis’s manufacturing secrets had found their way to Ge Rong’s workshop. And all of it, according to the rumor mills, had been the handiwork of the Red Yaksha, savior of the Lower Rings, bane of the gendarme, and enemy of the imperial court.

“Who is he?” Ning’er asked at last. She held up her hand—the flesh-and-blood one—before A’rong could feed her some bullshit answer. “No, really. Under the mask, who’s the Red Yaksha?”

A’rong was already shaking his head. “I can’t tell you that.”

“But you can tell me to work for him.” Ning’er folded her arms. “That’s not fair, A’rong. Besides, like I said, I’m retired.”

The side of A’rong’s mouth quirked. “So come out of retirement.”

“For some creepy dude in a mask? Pass.”

“He built you your limbs.”

“You built me my limbs,” Ning’er corrected pointedly. The metal fingers of her new arm screeched against the palm as she closed her fists. “Anyway, I’m clean now. I—I’m not like my old man. I haven’t touched Complacency since I quit thieving.”

A’rong’s eyes went soft. “You don’t need oxyveris to do your job.”

“Don’t I?” Ning’er pulled a face. “We’re talking a day at the office that involves scaling buildings, and breaking and entering, and making off with expensive things. So, last I checked: yeah, I need Complacency.”

“That stuff enhances you physically,” said Ge Rong. “It doesn’t do the work for you.”

“Same difference, isn’t it?” Ning’er couldn’t quite keep the edge out of her voice. “Without my regular dose of oxyveris, I was just another Sixth Ring amputee who couldn’t afford real prosthetics.”

“And now”—Ge Rong knocked pointedly on her new arm—“you’ve got the prosthetics.”

Ning’er swallowed hard. “I’ve never thieved without Complacency,” she said quietly. “The only reason I started taking it in the first place was because I needed to work. You know that, right?”

“I know,” said A’rong quietly.

“Fuck.” Ning’er pinched the bridge of her nose. “I’m being stupid, aren’t I?”

And just like that, the tension broke. A’rong laughed, the sound light but laced with sincerity. “You’re many things, Zhong Ning’er, but you’ve never been stupid.” He looked at her—really looked at her this time, his gaze soft, as he laid a big, callused hand on her shoulder. For a fleeting, stupid moment, Ning’er wondered how her life would have turned out if she’d been born a daughter of Ge Rong’s family. How different would things be if Ge Rong had been her real brother? Would they still be having this conversation—weighing the risk of one desperate crime over another—if Ge Rong had been Ning’er’s blood, instead of the father who’d gambled his own daughter’s body parts away for a drug that nearly killed them both?

It hurt to think about. She stared at the hand on her shoulder. The intricate tattoos on A’rong’s knuckles blurred with the abrupt, embarrassing prick of heat in her eyes.

“Just give the job some thought,” said A’rong. “You owe yourself that much, at least.” Gently, he swatted the back of her head. “And don’t let me see you back in my workshop missing any new limbs for at least another month, you hear?”

Ning’er didn’t quit thinking about the Red Yaksha during the whole walk home.

The thing was, A’rong was right on some level. Basic politeness probably dictated a debt of gratitude to the do-gooding phantom of the Lower Rings, if only because it meant girls like Ning’er got access to the same prosthetics rich kids got for pocket change. But Ning’er had never trusted the unknown.

Flickering streetlamps hung low over the shadow-strewn streets. Ning’er sighed up at the shoddy lights. Another infrastructure headache that no one would bother fixing, because no one ever bothered fixing anything in the Sixth Ring. The guttering orange glow played over the yellowing screens plastered to the sides of decaying buildings. The only one still legible was a dramatic shot of a young gendarme officer, strikingly handsome even in faded colors under poor lighting. The infamous Young Marshal. Ning’er sighed, glowering at the boy in the picture. His portrait was accompanied by some stupid, tone-deaf slogan, plastered in bold characters beneath the image, urging the citizens of the Xuyuan Emperor to serve their liege in exchange for his glorious protection. As if a seven-year-old who’d been crowned as a toddler knew shit about protecting his citizens.

She must have walked past the poster of the Young Marshal a hundred times. The son of a wealthy minister, his rise through the ranks of the gendarme—not to mention the favorites at the imperial court—was notorious. Rumor had it that, at just eighteen years old, he’d be named the youngest lieutenant in the Brocade Guard any day now. If it bore fruit, he would be making history: the Brocade Guard were the elite of the elite, the hand-chosen enforcers who represented the throne itself. No one had ever been chosen before their twentieth birthday.

With a place in history secured, not to mention the favor of the crown buoying his career, the Young Marshal would no doubt continue his family’s fine work of exploiting the misery and labor of the poor for the comfort of the Upper Rings. He was a monster, in every sense.

He was also, unfortunately, preposterously good-looking. Whoever ran the Emperor’s propaganda machine had chosen their poster boy well. Ning’er couldn’t count the number of times she’d wanted to deface his stupid portrait, only to pause, unable to bring herself to ruin that beautifully rendered face. Besides, it wasn’t like drawing an unflattering mustache on the Young Marshal’s flawless visage would actually destroy his accompanying political power. If only.

Tonight, she paused for just a moment, scowling up at those famous features: the dark swoop of thick, expensively cut hair falling over expressive, long-lashed eyes. A mouth like a girl’s, almost too full for its jawline. The face of an angel that belied its bearer’s cruelty.

Ning’er stared a few seconds longer, metal fist clenching and unclenching. Then she spat at the foot of the flickering screen and kept walking.

The only source of light in Ning’er’s apartment when she unlocked the door was a single blinking notification on the screen of the cheap monitor by her window. Ning’er frowned. That was weird. Pretty much every citizen—even in the Lower Rings—owned a monitor. They provided you with the basic informational necessities of daily life: the weather outside, headlines, reports on emergency curfews or restrictions on travel between Rings. But Ning’er had already cleared her alerts. She shouldn’t have gotten a new one unless—

Ice filled her veins. With a snarled expletive, she raced toward the monitor. “Shit, shit, shit, ??—”

Too late. The notification blinking brightly at her was all her worst fears made real: her balance sat at zero. The entire contents of her meager bank account—all twelve thousand kuai she’d earned off her old prosthetics—had been withdrawn. Which meant only one thing. Only one other person still had access to the codes on Ning’er’s personal account.

Ning’er sucked in a deep, steadying breath. Then another. The first person ever to take her in off the streets had been an old man who ran a bookshop near the park where Ning’er had been sleeping. She’d been huddling under someone’s forgotten picnic blanket for warmth when Mr. Yu had found her and offered her a few coins and a spare cot in the bookshop in exchange for some clerical work. “Breathe,” he’d said when she began to hyperventilate, certain that her life would never be more than this: never planning her life beyond one day, then the next, entirely dependent on the mercy of strangers. “Breathe, little one. Through all the trials that the universe hurls upon us, the only thing that will carry you through is breath. So breathe. Your own breath sustains you when nothing else does.”

That had been years ago. Ning’er had been twelve, a child still, really, and easily mollified by small kindnesses and dime store wisdom. But Mr. Yu had been wiser than most, and from time to time, when she felt well and truly backed into the worst of corners, Ning’er thought to herself: so long as you live, you have your breath. So breathe, Ning’er. Breathe. It means you’re still alive.

Now, for several minutes, all Ning’er did in that tiny, dingy studio was breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.

When her heart rate returned to normal, she pulled a chair up to her monitor. Slowly, she opened a search box and began to type. At dawn’s first light, she was going to have to pay a visit to her father.

Old Man Zhong had, once upon a time, not been an entirely shitty parent. Ning’er tried not to spend too much time thinking about the almost-good days. There had been a time when he’d smile at her, really smile at her, and his eyes would still be his. She’d still called him Baba, back then, and he’d called her his ??, precious one, his darling daughter. He used to swing her high up on his shoulders after a hard day at work, laughing as she shrieked with delight. They’d never been rich—hell, they’d never even really entertained fantasies of scraping together a life beyond the Sixth Ring. But they’d been happy, for a time. No matter what cruelties the Lower Rings visited upon them, Ning’er had felt certain and secure in the cozy cotton blanket of Baba’s love, steady as the modest roof over their heads. And for a few golden years, that had felt like enough. That had felt like it would last forever.

The factory accident had changed everything. With injuries that bad, and no prosthetic supplements cheap enough for the Lower Rings, the only thing that kept Baba upright and working was oxyveris: better known as Complacency. So the doctors had prescribed more, and more, and more, until eventually, Baba wasn’t really Baba anymore.

You always paid a price, in the Lower Rings.

While Ning’er was best at ferreting out information when she had boots on the ground and solid evidence between her fingers, tracking her father down wasn’t hard. Old Man Zhong had never been great at covering his footsteps, and drugs always made him worse. He left a digital trail everywhere he went.

This time, it led right to a cheap apartment building just three blocks from Ning’er’s. She tamped down the irrational wave of hurt that he’d been living a stone’s throw away from her for the better part of a year and never once tried to see her. It was for the best. She knew what happened when her father showed up. If she was lucky, he’d just scream at her, blaming her for the ruin of his life, cursing the wait before his next dosage.

After all, if he hadn’t been providing for Ning’er, he’d never have taken that factory job. He’d never have gotten hurt. And if he hadn’t needed to provide for Ning’er, he wouldn’t have needed to mask the injury in the only way Lower Ringers could. He’d never have touched Complacency.

She hated that, deep down, she blamed herself too.

It was worse when she saw glimpses of his old self. The way her baba would smile at her, sweet, like he really meant it, lucid as he ever got. He’d try to hold her. And then he’d cry. The crying was always the worst part, worse even than the promises he’d shower on her: ??, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry for everything. I’ll do better. I really mean it this time. I’ll do better, and make it all up to you. I haven’t taken oxyveris in three days, and I’m already doing so well, don’t you see? I just have to keep it up, and we’ll go back to how it was. We’ll be happy again. I promise, I promise, I promise. He would promise, and cry, and cry, and cry. His arms would make a desperate vise around her back as his tears stained her shirts and dribbled down the metal casing of her prosthetics.

Once upon a time, Ning’er used to cry, too. She stopped, eventually, deadened to the sting of disappointment. Fighting against the tug of Complacency, once it truly sank its claws into you, was a lost cause. A day, a week, a month later, and Baba would be on it again. And if he couldn’t pump himself full of enough drugs to keep him working, money would start vanishing from Ning’er’s accounts once more.

After all, to the court, it didn’t particularly matter that Old Man Zhong had once sold his twelve-year-old daughter’s limbs for a gram of Complacency. It didn’t matter that he’d left her on the side of a street to die in the rain. It didn’t matter that she almost certainly would have died if it hadn’t been for people like Mr. Yu the bookseller, or later, Ge Rong.

All that mattered was that Old Man Zhong and Zhong Ning’er shared blood. Under the law, he was still her father, and she was still seventeen years old. And without legal adulthood, her father could do whatever he wanted with her money. It had gotten Ning’er pretty good at coming up with extra password authentications and clever blocks on her accounts, but between extra hours tending bar and the stress of finding another customer for her prosthetics, she’d gotten lazy.

And this time, her laziness had cost her. She could strangle her past self for being so goddamn careless. Her only hope of recovering her lost funds would be getting to her father before he got to his next dose. If he still had the money, there was a chance—a small chance, but a chance all the same—that she could wrestle it back from him. Ning’er had a whole emergency arsenal well-honed and practiced. Threats, or bribes, or a good old-fashioned guilt trip—none were certain weapons, but all were on the table.

Her father usually took a while to answer the door, wherever he was staying. Old Man Zhong didn’t like visitors and was dead asleep more often than not. So when the designated door slid aside halfway through her second knock, Ning’er had to bite back surprise.

For a scant few seconds, she wondered if she’d pulled the wrong address from the public databases. The man standing before her looked worse than usual, his eyes bloodshot and beard overgrown. Ning’er’s heart sank. “Ba,” she managed. “Did you… did you already spend the money?”

The apartment’s occupant swayed slowly on his feet without answering. He looked, briefly, like he was going to topple over. Automatically, she offered a steadying hand. It was the metal hand, which turned out to be a mistake.

He swatted the prosthetic aside, his entire body recoiling from the sight of her artificial arm. “Leave me alone.”

“I plan to.” Ning’er shoved her way past him into the apartment. “As soon as you give me back what’s mine.”

The slap caught her full across the face. It startled her more than it hurt, but she gasped with the force of it, sliding sideways into one of the cheap plaster walls. Her palms broke her impact, but her father was already railing at her.

“Yours?” he snarled. “Yours? Who was all that Complacency for? Who had to work to keep that roof over your head all those years?”

Ning’er turned from the wall. Her cheek smarted, but it had been a lucky shot. If it came down to a physical fight, she didn’t intend on letting her father win. She strode toward him, metal fist clenched at her side. “And who gave up her original limbs to keep that roof over yours?”

A desperate, broken expression spread across his features. “Ning’er, I only ever wanted to provide. You have to understand, we didn’t have anything, and you were too young to—”

“Shut up!” roared Ning’er. She didn’t want to hear it. “You took my money! Like you were entitled to it, just like you were entitled to my arm, my leg—”

“You have no idea what I sacrificed!” her father whimpered. “You think you’re so much better than me because you had the luxury to get off Complacency and have the audacity to talk as though that’s your money? After everything we lost?” He raised his hand again.

Ning’er caught his wrist before he could strike her a second time. She’d used the metal prosthetic again, deliberately this time. She couldn’t help but relish the tendril of fear that crept into his gaze when she tightened the chrome-reinforced digits on his skin, almost hard enough to bruise. “You have no idea what I had to do to put that money in my bank account,” she hissed. “And if you touch me again, I’ll make you regret it. Unlike you, I keep my promises.”

His mouth took on a bitter set. “Oh, you will, will you? And I wonder, what would the android patrols have to say about a daughter’s assault on her own father?” He plucked his hand from her suddenly slackened grip. “They wouldn’t appreciate a violation of their precious protocols, I imagine. You wouldn’t want me to report you now, would you?”

Ning’er hated that he was right. Abruptly, she turned from him, palms raised. “You know what? I’m done. At the end of the day, if it comes down to a choice between me and Complacency, I know which one will win.” She hated the telltale heat building behind her eyes and nose, but she barreled on all the same. “I’m done playing the fool. I know a lost battle when I see one. Enjoy the next six months before my eighteenth birthday. I won’t bother you again after that.”

Something alien flickered across her father’s face. If Ning’er didn’t know better, she might have thought it was regret. “Ning’er, wait, don’t go. I—I lost my temper. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, you know I’m not really like that—”

He tried to cup her face between his hands. Ning’er jerked aside.

“Don’t touch me!”

He flinched away, as if he was the one who’d been hit, not her. “Okay, I won’t touch you. But you have to understand, this isn’t me. I never wanted… I never wanted to be this person.”

Ning’er hesitated on the threshold of the doorway. Her heart twisted at the way hope—it had to be hope, right?—bloomed in her father’s bloodshot eyes. For a moment, he looked almost like his old self. “All I need is a chance, Ning’er,” he pleaded. “The last stash I bought, it was no good, cut with all kinds of garbage, almost killed me when I tried to use it on an overnight shift. If I just had one more month’s supply of the good stuff, the better brand of Complacency, I could get back on my feet, find better work, buy a half-decent flat for both of us—”

Ning’er stopped hesitating. “Goodbye, Baba.” She slammed her way out of his apartment before she could waste more time imagining things that weren’t there.

“Ning’er,” he called. His voice had gone feeble again, slurred. “Ning’er, wait, come back here! Please! Don’t leave me alone here. I need…”

Ning’er didn’t actually give a fuck what Old Man Zhong thought he needed. She couldn’t afford to. She picked up her pace, pulling herself well out of earshot, walking so fast she was practically running. Her organic leg had a cramp in the calf by the time she hit the bottom of the apartment stairwell, but Ning’er barely registered the pain. She wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the actual problem at hand, not with her father’s voice getting into her head.

And heaven above, what a monster of a problem. Rent was due this week, and the landlord would only give her a grace period of two weeks before immediate eviction. It would take well over a month to earn back the money Old Man Zhong had stolen and squandered, and selling her prosthetics this soon after the last set was out of the question. Even Ge Rong’s patience—and recklessness—would only extend so far.

When Ning’er was a block from the apartment complex, she turned abruptly on the street corner, whirling on her heel, arms flung akimbo. “Fuck!” she yelled at no one in particular. A little old auntie hobbling across the street with her groceries shot Ning’er a mildly judgmental look.

Ning’er ignored the auntie and kicked a pebble across the street. Fear and fury rocketed her pulse into a hot buzz beneath her skin. “Fuck!” she yelled again. “Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck!” A few passers-by glanced over at her, cautiously alarmed, but most continued about their business. She could imagine what was going through their heads: just another Sixth Ring girl down on her luck, one among thousands of desperate, wretched souls clawing their way through the filthy underbelly of Beijing. Don’t look at her. Don’t look at any of these other poor, pathetic bastards. Keep walking. Just keep walking, if you know what’s good for you, if you want to survive the Sixth Ring for one more day.

Breathe, chided Mr. Yu from the depths of her memory. So long as you live, you can breathe.

Ning’er breathed, angry little puffs as she exhaled again and again, resisting the urge to throw herself into the street and start punching the ground out of sheer, desperate frustration. No matter how bad things had gotten before, selling her prosthetics had always served as a rainy-day failsafe. Now, she’d finally run out of luck. Ge Rong would be so disappointed.

Ge Rong. Ning’er froze mid-exhale. All at once, their last conversation flooded through her head. His job offer.

Or rather, the Red Yaksha’s.

Ning’er always kept a comm-link in her pocket. It was the cheapest model she could find—clunky and prone to malfunctioning, with a shitty display screen you still had to flip open to talk to anyone—but it still felt like an unnecessary expense sometimes. Since Mr. Yu had passed, the only person who ever called her was Ge Rong, and paying for a plan to talk to one person was a preposterous amount of money for a Sixth Ring barkeep to spend.

In this moment, though, as she pulled Ge Rong’s link line up, Ning’er had never been more grateful for the frivolous plastic contraption.

He picked up on the third ring. “Ning’er?” Concern flooded his voice. “Is everything all right?”

“Nope,” said Ning’er. Her throat caught. A beat passed, then a second, before she managed to say, entirely too brightly, “My father stole all my money and spent it on Complacency, so I am, in fact, deeply screwed right now—”

His breath hitched. “Excuse me?”

Ning’er barreled on. “But we’re about to change that.” Giddiness had taken the place of the rage from earlier. This was stupid. She knew that. It was possibly even stupider than trying to confront her father. But with eviction imminent, she’d run out of time for smart.

There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Tell me you’re not going to sell your limbs again.”

“Something like that.” Ning’er offered a savage smile at the streets to the Sixth Ring as she spoke. “Tell your Red Yaksha that if he’s still shopping around for a cat burglar, he’s got one. I’m in.”

About The Author

Photograph by Caitlin Clarke

Andrea Tang grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and currently lives, writes, and works in the Washington, DC, area. She loves martial arts in general and Brazilian jiu-jitsu in particular and in her spare time enjoys learning new sports and checking out live theater. Andrea is the author of Rebelwing and its companion novel, Renegade Flight, as well as Kingdom of Without.

Why We Love It

“Andrea Tang’s writing is fierce and whip-sharp while her wry, sardonic humor brings levity to a narrative that is tightly paced and intense. A narrative of revolution and conviction, it strikes notes that remind me of favorites like Les Miserables and Fullmetal Alchemist, while making the argument that hope is a thing worth building and that true friends are worth waiting for.”

—Alyza L., Editor, on Kingdom of Without

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (November 28, 2023)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665901444
  • Grades: 7 and up
  • Ages: 12 - 99

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Raves and Reviews

"Clever, intricately plotted, and wildly fun, Kingdom of Without is the heist novel done to perfection. What a joy to step into Tang's Beijing; I never wanted to leave."

Grace D. Li, New York Times bestselling author of Portrait of a Thief

"Sharp, sophisticated, and stirring, Kingdom of Without presents a brilliant tale of revolution crackling with action, wit, and humor and interlaced with moments that so poignantly explore what it means to be human — all set against the backdrop of a cyberpunk, futuristic Beijing. I am wholly in love with the gritty world and clever crew that Andrea Tang has created in one of her best works yet."

Amelie Wen Zhao, New York Times bestselling author of Song of Silver, Flame Like Night 

"A high-octane novel set against the stunning backdrop of an alternate cyberpunk Beijing, Kingdom of Without is an unmissable sci-fi adventure. I fell under the spell of this band of young revolutionaries whose desperate fight against incredible odds is filled with breathtaking action, love in its many forms, and the painful but enduring hope for a better world."

Axie Oh, New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

"Wickedly clever, outrageously fun, and bursting with heart, Kingdom of Without is a razor-sharp story of heists, found family, and revolution that pulls no punches and beautifully explores how far we'll go for the ones we love and the world we want to build. This is Andrea Tang at her best."

Rebecca Mix, New York Times bestselling author of The Ones We Burn

"This cyberpunk story with well-constructed worldbuilding offers a strong mix of wit, humor, action, and heart. Centered on revolution, the story addresses a range of social and identity issues.

A fun and powerful adventure for lovers of alternate histories."

Kirkus Reviews

"With parallels to real-life opioid crises set against a futuristic backdrop, this fast-paced heist balances lofty ideals of change with snappy dialogue and pulse-pounding action."

Publishers Weekly

"In a well-constructed world, Ning’er is a tough, talented, and sympathetic character, and Cheng Yun is charismatic and complex, aware of the ethically shady aspects of his double life. The pacing balances heart-pounding action with extended sequences in which Ning’er and Cheng Yun build their doomed romance...[h]and this dystopic-heist-romance in an alt-world China to fans of Marissa Meyer’s ­Cinder."

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