The Color Eater a novel by Jessica Conoley

The Color Eater – First Chapter

Olena Burnwhite is the last known color eater: a rare atypical human whose touch draws energy out of organic matter, draining it of color.

Separated from her father as a kid, Lena knows next to nothing about her atypical gift, except that it’s put a target on her back. The Rada—a shadowy police state—are determined to cull atyps from the general population and lock them away in Korvidian, their top-secret prison. These days, most of Lena’s typ neighbors would turn her over for a little electricity or a hot meal. With nowhere to turn, when the Rada launch a series of rigged trials against each group of atyps—starting with color eaters—Lena seizes the chance to get some answers. But an explosive demonstration of her gift shocks the court, and she is sentenced to life in Korvidian.

In Korvidian, Lena is suddenly surrounded by atyps. There’s Magda, a shifter with attitude to spare who might be a spy; Will, a bearer disowned by his Rada-scientist parents; and Ori, the edgy leader of the seers who can’t stand her. As she looks for answers about her past, she realizes the Rada’s twisted propaganda hides dark secrets—and no prisoner is left unscarred. With tensions rising inside the prison, Lena is pushed to the limit to save her friends and must find her place in a fight where she could be the most powerful weapon of all.


Chapter 1


“Wanna go to a witch trial?” My voice comes out jagged, cut by heavy breath, as I collapse into a chair across from the man reading the Glenvale Gazette.

A shrill whistle pierces the calm of Glenvale’s town square as the diner lowers his newspaper to meet my gaze. Black hair fades to gray over the tops of his ears, and the spectacles he wears do little to mask the tell-tale gray film over his dark eyes. He seems indifferent to me crashing his al fresco lunch, as if strange girls one-third his age often take a seat across from him uninvited. The only indication of surprise on his craggy face is where his left eyebrow hovers a bit higher than his right when he finally answers my question. “Whose?”

Leaning forward, I tap the large photo above the fold. It’s the same picture they’ve been running for four years. A girl in her early-teens with an angular jaw and large cat-shaped eyes stares at the reader, long black hair framing a face as pale as the paper beneath the print. Her height is noted at sixteen hands, and bold typeface screams Wanted above her head.  They quit posting the particulars of her “last known whereabouts” a year and a half ago, but they still make room for “imminent threat” and “moral imperative to report sightings immediately by order of the Rada.”

“It’s extremely difficult to hold a trial without someone to try.” His clipped Outlander accent sounds faint against the scream of a spooked horse. I try to glimpse a view outside the café’s wrought-iron fence. A cart blocks any useful information, but the air feels heavy with the presence of Rada soldiers. Street vendors lug their wares over the cobblestone roads onto deserted side streets to avoid the impending interrogations. A boy dressed in drab broadcloth dashes towards an alley. A few days ago, I would have been right behind him.

Across the table from me, the diner holds up his paper and reviews the day’s headlines: Rada Readies for Atypical Trials; Nevile Fano Hearing Schedule Released! Last of the Color Eaters Called to Court; Ilterior Forces Amass—Are These the Last Days of the Unified Front? His gaze keeps returning to the Wanted girl’s photo. “Olena Burnwhite hasn’t been seen in years.”

“She goes by Lena,” I say. The cart finally moves, revealing two soldiers headed into the apothecary shop in the northwest corner—the start of a standard sweep.

“The papers always refer to her as Olena.” He folds his paper, setting it onto the table next to his coffee cup.

“Well, obviously they’ve never spoken with anyone who really knows her then.”

“And you have?” His tone confirms he has moved beyond incredulity into the realm of amusement. He raises the steaming cup to his lips.

I stare straight into his cloudy eyes and give him time to mentally erase the dark circles from under my emerald eyes, revise my close-cropped bob to the outdated haircut in the photo, clean the layer of dirt coating my skin, and flesh out my frame with an extra ten pounds.

He chokes on his coffee.

“Pleasure to finally meet you, Ambassador Merrigold.” My voice drops. “It’s nice to finally put a face to all those stories Dad used to tell.”

“Miss Burnwhite,” he says. “The honor’s mine.”

I scan the square once more. Two soldiers perform door-to-door sweeps of the first-floor shops and the living quarters that top the two-story stone structures; four specialists scope us out from the steeply peaked roofline. The Rada must really want me out of the picture before that court date, but, for once in my life, bureaucratic rules might actually work in my favor—only an idiot would attempt to arrest me in a neutral zone in front of witnesses.  “Ambassador, may I join you for lunch?”

“Call me Bertram.” He waves to the proprietor through the large plate-glass window. “This café has the best madrogan in town.”

I smile. “I can’t even remember the last time I had madrogan.”  Or anything else that was served on a proper plate.

“Well, today we shall have it, and anything else you would like.”

The letter in my pocket crunches as I relax into the café chair. I set my pack on the ground between my feet and watch the specialists watching me. I should have known the neutral zone wouldn’t keep me out of the Rada’s hands. But if they are dumb enough to drag me into custody, I’m eating first. “Do you have a menu?”

Figs stuffed with goat cheese, dipped in a dark purple glaze, are set before us by a stiff-faced lelsh. Hunger overpowers civility, and I cram one of the figs into my mouth before our server has left the patio. Murmurs of contentment slip past my lips as the gritty flesh of the fig melts into the smooth, tangy cheese.

Bertram takes the smallest fruit on the earthenware plate and kindly waits for me to devour the rest of our first course before he breaks the silence. “I didn’t realize the Rada were letting lelsh outside the Unified Front these days. When I was a boy, there were no such…” He sighs. “Creatures.”

On the other side of the glass, our server stands facing the pass-through to the kitchen. With his back to us he looks like a regular man, but when he turns the expression on his face is benign and immobile, his eyes focused on nothing and everything at once. This lelsh appears to be strong—made for hard labor. It’s an unlikely fit, his waiting tables. Perhaps he was won in a card game.

“Lena?” Bertram offers me a burgundy napkin. “You have a bit of glaze.” He gestures to his lip.

“Thank you.” As I accept the linen, our fingers brush. “You’re not worried about the things they say about me?”

He glances at his hand and there’s a moment for him to consider the question. When he responds, his tone is gentle. “You mean that you steal the youth of children with a single touch?”

My face warms, and I clench my jaw.

“That the earth will obey your command, and you can raze an entire village with the sound of your voice?”

I crush the napkin in my right hand so tight my bones strain against my skin.

“That the Rada has an entire department devoted to hunting you, and you are the living embodiment of— ”

I throw the napkin on the table. “Normally, I’m only accused of one devilment at a time.”

The patio door swings open. Two steaming bowls of thick gravied beef and onion stew and a large loaf of hard-crusted bread are set on the table before us.

Across the square, soldiers move on to the bakery. The baker raises his arms in protest as the authorities prod him forward. They disappear into the bowels of the gray-stone building. My heart drops.  Would they be here if it wasn’t for me?

Bertram waits for the lelsh to shuffle back inside before speaking. “It’s true then?”

“No.” I glare at him. “Not any of it. Who would hurt a child?”

“Not those rumors.” He points to my napkin. Against the deep red of the cloth, my disjointed finger and palm prints stand out stark white. The color leeched from the fabric, a negative image where nothing had been moments before. “You are what they say you are.” His words are matter-of-fact. “The last living color eater.”

“Hide that thing before you get us killed,” I say.

The napkin disappears into Bertram’s jacket pocket.

“I don’t know that I’m the last living anything. Certainly not a color eater.” I shovel a spoonful of stew into my mouth, “See, I’m a food eater. Just plain old madrogan-eating Lena.”

He laughs. “Of course, and I’m just a man on holiday from the Outlands.” His spoon hovers halfway to his mouth. “We had a color eater in my village when I was young.”

“Let me guess, somebody got the bright idea they’d protect you by ‘relocating’ them?”

“Perhaps. All I can say for certain is one day they were gone.”

The baker emerges at the door of his business, blood dripping from a gash in his forehead. Soldiers glower behind him.

I scowl. “Everywhere I go that story ends the same. ‘One day they were gone.’”

“You’re not gone, Lena.”

“No. But I’m not really here.”

“Why do you say that?”

“There are fleeting moments when I remember what it felt like to be her.” I stab my spoon at the picture of fresh-faced and clueless me on the front page of his paper, “But it’s getting harder and harder to remember. It doesn’t help when you’re always pretending to be somebody else.”

Bertram chews and studies me. “You’ve decided it’s time to stop pretending?”

“Dad always said you had a way of getting straight to the point.” I take the battered envelope from my pocket and slide it across the table. “Yes. I’m done pretending. It’s time to get that girl on the front page her life back.”

Bertram reads the name I’ve hastily scrawled on the paper, and for the first time since we’ve met, his voice wavers. “How do you plan to do that?”

“By testifying at that ridiculous trial.” My gaze cuts to the hunkered down specialists awaiting orders. “Assuming I can make it to Nevile…”

Bertram pales. “That trial is nothing but a stunt to flush you out of hiding.”

“Great. Because once I get to Nevile I’m done hiding.” I mop the last of the thick sauce from bottom of my bowl with a piece of bread. “You weren’t lying this madrogan really is good.”

“Lena, you’ve haven’t thought this through. There is no way the Rada is going to let an atyp take the stand in a public trial.”

“If enough people see me at Nevile they have to.” I lower my voice. “They can’t just make me disappear like they did the other atyps. Not with all the press covering this story.”

Soldiers move from the bakery, bypassing the neighboring shops. Bertram glances at them, shakes his head at me. “They may let you live, but that’s not a life, Lena.”

“Neither is this, Ambassador. All I do is hurt people. All the people who’ve tried to help me…” I swallow hard, willing myself not to think about it. I push the envelope closer to him. “I don’t belong out here. The only place I’ve ever belonged was with dad.”

“Lena, your father’s gone.”

“No, he’s not. I’ve just been looking in the wrong places.”

Bertram picks up the letter addressed to Dad and tucks it in his breast pocket. “How do you propose to look for him when you’re in Rada custody?”

“A guilty verdict should get me in to Korvidian.”

His expression darkens, brows furrowing together. He leans across the table close enough I can smell the Outland pine cologne on his skin. “He’s not there, Lena.”

A look in the café glass confirms the shadows on the roof moving into an attack formation. “Where else would he be?”

Bertram shakes his head. The staccato click of guards’ boots echoes against the cobblestones, their frenzied rhythm bleeding into Bertram’s rushed words.  “If you’re right. If he’s there, why the letter?”

“Just in case… If I’m wrong…I want him to understand.” I need him to know why I turned myself in, that I never stopped looking. “Promise you’ll—”

Specialists drop from the roof; surround our table in swift, synchronized movements.

I grab my pack and spring from my chair, backing toward the window of the café.

A baritone voice from the rear of the squadron cuts through the square. “Olena Burnwhite you are wanted by the Rada on counts of evasion, conspiracy, and conduct unbecoming a citizen of the Unified Front.” The formation tightens, forcing me against the window.

Bertram rises, spine straight, shoulders square, the picture of polished Outlander authority. “Desist at once. You are outside the Unified Front’s territory. Military action within the neutral zone is in direct violation of the Banforth Treaty.” His cool words carry through the squadron.

Specialists freeze, telescoping batons drawn, a half circle of statues ready to send an electric charge my direction. A tall, emaciated man breaks through the ranks. Gold glitters at his shoulders and wrists; the breast of his charcoal uniform bears four red slashes—the mark of Rada commanders.

“Respectfully, Ambassador, you are beyond the Outland’s territory and have no authority here. It also appears you’re sadly short on protection. I see no reason to worry about where exactly Ms. Burnwhite was apprehended.” Sallow skin stretches over his protruding cheekbones, leaving cavernous hollows where his cheeks should be. A sneer pulls at his upper lip when he sees me trapped against the building. “As you and I both know, the press should have no problem finding witnesses to confirm I captured Ms. Burnwhite within the Unified Front’s territory. Furthermore…”

Furthermore, the Rada’s resident narcissist will keep talking until we all die of boredom. I let my voice ring out loud enough for all of his men to hear. “You really shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble on my account, Hedrick.”

“That’s Commander Thornwhistle, girl.” Three strides close the space between us.

“Did you hear?  Big day coming up at Nevile Fano.” I press my hands against the window behind me, my trembling stops momentarily—the glass cool against my damp palms  “You’ll get me to trial on time, won’t you, Hedrick?”

His baton smashes into my stomach. I slam against the cobblestones with such force my teeth pierce my tongue. Blood trickles from the edge of my mouth. When I try to rise to one knee, cold steel presses beneath my chin. Thornwhistle’s weapon wrenches my head upward, forcing me to meet his malevolent stare. His rancid breath steams against my cheek. “That’s Commander, girl, and Nevile is the last place you’ll end up on my watch.”

“Sir.” The baritone voice from the back of the squadron speaks again. “In the cafe. Sir.”

Thornwhistle presses the baton against my throat, stifling my airway as he turns his attention to the window behind me. With a curse, he whips the baton to his side, leaving me wheezing on my knees.

Bertram edges towards us, “Thornwhistle. Any military aggression in Glenvale will be seen as an open act of war by the Outlands.”

“Well we wouldn’t want that now, would we?” The Commander snaps away from me. “Stand down.” Thornwhistle’s men lower their weapons.

What in the gods’ names?  I stagger to my feet and peer through the glass behind me. The lelsh stares out of the pass-through. Its nowhere-everywhere gaze fixed on the mayhem in the square. Why would a lelsh have Thornwhistle so spooked?

Doesn’t matter. That lelsh just bought me a chance at Nevile—a chance at finding Dad. I press my lips into a firm line, but there’s no way to keep the smile from my eyes—if I ever see that lelsh again I just might kiss it.

Bertram advances, his voice calm and matter-of-fact, “Commander, I trust Ms. Burnwhite’s personal rights will not be infringed upon while she’s within neutral territory.”

Thornwhistle gives a terse nod, his attention locked on the lelsh and the square where people cluster around the café.  “Take care of it,” he says. Two soldiers dash into the café, take the lelsh by his arms and steer him towards the kitchen. With harsh words and raised weapons, soldiers fall into the crowd and disperse the witnesses.

“You should come willingly, Ms. Burnwhite. My men won’t be this gentle when we catch you in Rada territory.” He strides into the building.

Bertram hands me my bag. “Do I have any hope of convincing you to run north?”

I wipe the trickle of blood from the corner of my mouth and offer a lop-sided smile as I shake my head.

“I thought as much,” He lays a hand lightly on my shoulder, “But if your travels lead that way, please know my people will offer a much kinder welcome than the Rada. There’s no need for you to hide amongst the Outlanders or Ilts. We celebrate the talents of people like yourself. We take care of our friends.”

Friends. Is that what we are?

Around us soldiers force the locals about their business in the square. The baker’s hands shake as he arranges loaves on the windowsill of his shop. Vendors at carts call out their wares, but now their voices sound forced and hollow.  If Bertram finds Dad before I do, Dad will know how it came to this; why I chose to search for him at Nevile; why I didn’t have a choice.

With a final nod to Bertram, I move. Keeping my back to the wall of the café, I skirt the edge of the building until I hit the shadows of a side street, where I do a one-eighty—and run.

The Color Eater is a richly imagined fantasy infused with big moral questions at its heart, for fans of Kristin Cashore, Neal Shusterman, and Suzanne Collins. Imagine the charming characters, mythical-industrial world, and winking humor of a Studio Ghibli story—but with a gritty twist.

For rights inquiries on the completed 117,000-word manuscript contact Lucy Cleland at the Kneerim & Williams literary agency.

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