"I don't make mistakes." The deeply-purple stallion crossed his forelegs over his chest, his face a study of contempt. Towering over the two ponies at the elegantly laid out table before him, he made an impressive figure. So purple as to appear black under certain lighting, the stallion's red mane gave him a menacing look which the knife in his hoof accentuated.
"I say you do. This... this..." the seated stallion held up a fork full of a reddish-brown oozing substance and stared at it a moment, "... this poor excuse for sauteed sirloin tips is repulsive at best. You used too much onion and not enough mushrooms, and your choice of spices was odious."
The mare sharing the table with the antagonist patted her escort's hoof, her gaze never leaving the sharp utensil in the larger stallion's grasp. "It can't be that bad, Lyndy. I'm sure Chef Onyx knows what he's doing."
The other guests at the classy restaurant, Gourmet Galley, were by now keenly aware of the confrontation between the leading chef in Hayton and one of the city's most notable businessponies. All eating, all talking, had come to a standstill, and a pin dropping would have sounded stentorian. All eyes focused on the table in question; several of the weak-hearted diners looked rather faint, but the majority of the patrons were wide-eyed and eager to witness the outcome.
"If that were true, darling, then how can one explain this carrion on my plate?" Lyndy drawled, turning his fork over and allowing the substance to plop back to its source.
The chef's hoof tightened on the handle of the knife and his face took on a steely look. A nerve twitched near the corner of his mouth. "Then, surely, I didn't make a mistake," he finally answered. "Carrion is a vulture's favorite food, isn't it?"
The chef spoke the words so softly that only the two ponies at the table were witness to them, but everyone in the room could guess at the winner of the confrontation by the livid look on Lyndy's face and by the restraining hoof that his dinner companion laid on his foreleg when he would have risen to meet Onyx's challenge.
Onyx himself, after one long assessing look at Lyndy, returned to his kitchen.
* * *
"My, my," breathed one of the guests who, along with her mate, had been about to be seated when the altercation occurred. Her vibrant pink hair was accented against a purple body several shades lighter than the chef's. "So that's what Onyx is like when he's in his realm."
"Rather a forbidding spectacle, I'd say," returned the yellow stallion as he helped his wife into a chair. "Are you sure he's the one we want?"
Twilight Jewel chuckled. "We decided that a colorful character would be a draw even if his cooking wasn't high caliber. With Onyx, we get both the character and the caliber."
Shaking his head, Drifter was not so sure. "He won't be easy to work with."
"I never said this would be easy, now, did I?" placated the mare, touching her husband's hoof for a moment. "There will never be a dull moment."
"If we can convince the maverick chef to fall into our plan," Drifter reminded her pointedly.
"Never fear. Onyx may be Sassy and Blackcap's oldest offspring, but I'm betting that he has more sense than the two of them put together."
Once more, Drifter shook his head. This was not the first time that he wondered if his wife had targeted Onyx for his talents or for his relationship to their son's in-laws. Twilight Jewel had welcomed Garnet into the family, but she had never fully accepted Sassy and Blackcap as anything more than opportunists. Was she looking for a chance to flaunt her successful- hopefully- venture in their faces by using their son to get what she wanted?
As he looked at his wife and saw the lights dancing in her eyes, he dropped all his worrisome thoughts. She was lovely, and she was happy in this quest to establish an elite restaurant in the city. Whatever drove her, it had brought out the best in her. She was more alive, more vibrant, more beautiful, than at any time since their marriage. Drifter sighed in satisfaction before turning his attention to the menu.
* * *
"I'm telling you, Onyx, one more stunt like that, and you're out of here... premier chef or not!" The manager of the restaurant, pacing in the kitchen, failed to see the fire in the stallion's eyes or he might have been more circumspect. "For all practical purposes, you threatened Lyndy with a knife in front of a roomful of witnesses!"
Onyx's eyelids half dropped over the inferno that Paddy had kindled. "I was slicing foie gras when my presence was requested at his table."
"You could have left the knife behind!"
"I could leave this restaurant behind just as well," Onyx replied cooly.
No one knew better than Paddy what a draw the colorful chef was for the restaurant; he would never release him willingly for he understood that the personality of the chef had a lot to do with his culinary success. His hasty words had only been meant to make the obdurate chef think twice about his behavior; he did not want Onyx to walk out on him.
"No one's asking you to take such a drastic measure, Onyx," Paddy placated. "What I am asking is that you take a little more care with our customers; they have the final say on whether your presentation is good or not."
"Lyndy wouldn't know..."
Paddy intervened. "Lyndy would know just how to bring this restaurant down."
"So just like a vulture, he could feed off the remains."
"Well, yes; I wouldn't put it that way myself, but it is the truth." Paddy brushed a hoof across his perspiring forehead, then worked with his necktie to loosen it.
Feeling a touch of sympathy, Onyx relaxed his stance. "Okay, Paddy; you still have a chef... for the time being."
The manager smiled faintly. No way was he going to dig any deeper into that pregnant statement... not tonight, anyway.
* * *
The chef had removed his hat and apron and was anxious to be on his way when a staff member, Bubo, came to him. "There's a couple at their table yet who'd like to talk to you."
The raising of his brows gave Onyx a threatening look. "What about?"
"They didn't say... just wanted to know if you were available to speak with them."
"Tell them I'm..." Onyx stopped his denouncement. If some patrons had a bone to pick- Onyx snickered over the inadvertent reference to vultures again- it was better he handle it than have them take their complaint to Paddy... especially now when the manager was talking of ridding the place of him. Onyx had his own dreams, but he did not yet have the backing to realize them.
With a shrug of his shoulders, he waved a hoof, dismissing Bubo of his duty, and walked out to the main seating area where the only diners left on the premises were easy to spot. Noting by their expressions that they did not seem to be chagrined about anything, Onyx found himself breathing more naturally. He certainly did not mind a confrontation; but, on the other hoof, he did not search for one, either.
The stallion at the table stood to greet him, and a prickle of familiarity went through Onyx. He had seen this guy somewhere... and the mare still seated, surely closer to his mother's age than to his... yes! that was it... at his baby sister's wedding... the parents of the groom. He thought hard before coming up with their names but had them in his grasp as he approached the two ponies. "Drifter... Twilight Jewel." He shook their extended hooves. " Garnet and Wishbone are doing well, I hope."
"Exceedingly well," Twilight Jewel smiled. "Perhaps you haven't heard that they are expecting a foal."
The expression on the chef's face softened. "So Nettie's going to try her hoof at motherhood," he said, sitting across from Twilight Jewel.
"That's what I called my little sister when we were all home yet." Onyx grinned, giving him a much younger and more vulnerable image than the earlier face-off with Lyndy would have admitted. "She was such a slip of a thing that Garnet seemed too harsh a name for her. She also was very good at netting marks for Blackcap and Sassy."
"Do you see your parents often?" Twilight Jewel asked.
"Often enough." The tone of Onyx's voice conveyed that the subject was closed.
Drifter stepped into the void. "Twilight Jewel and I have long wanted to experience your cuisine; we found that all the hype about you in dining circles is true... on all accounts."
Swift to understand the inference, Onyx stiffened. "You witnessed the contention between Lyndy and me. I'm sorry that happened."
"Your maverick actions are as much a part of your persona as your creative cooking," Twilight Jewel smiled. "Be assured, Onyx, that we admire what you've accomplished. It's for that reason that we're here."
Something in the tone of the mare's voice caused Onyx to look at her sharply, as if seeing her for the first time. She's up to something, this one, he thought wryly. He waited in silence for her to continue.
"The meal we ate tonight was superb; you know how to bring out the best in any ingredient. It's this kind of perfection that Drifter and I would like to present to the ponies of Hayton with a new gourmet restaurant... with you in complete control of the kitchen."
Onyx stared at the mare, then glanced at her husband whose attention was on the napkin with which he was fiddling as if setting himself apart from the conversation. He turned back to Twilight Jewel. "I share your dream, but it's one that I will realize in my own time and on my own authority."
"And just when will your time come?"
His eyes never leaving the mare's face, Onyx replied, "I keep my own counsel."
The heavily-loaded silence was broken by Drifter, whose attention still seemed to be concentrated on the napkin. "Paddy seemed upset, from what we could hear." Only for the briefest moment did his gaze flash to Onyx's face, which was now closed and shuttered.
"He's always concerned about one thing or another. Now, if you'll excuse me..." The deep purple stallion got to his hooves; but before he could take a step, he was stopped by Twilight Jewel.
"What would you think of a site overlooking Sunset Lake?"
Onyx turned and snorted. "You're new to town; there's no land available out there."
"But just imagine for a moment that there was. Not only land, but a building as well."
"You're crazy." His glance encompassed the two ponies witheringly. "You're both crazy." He turned and stalked away.
Drifter looked up from the well-creased napkin and winked at his wife. "You've got his attention, my dear."
"And two-to-one, he'll be scouting the lake at daybreak tomorrow."
"Your exposure to Sassy and Blackcap last summer seems to have had a lasting effect," Drifter chuckled.
"If it helps us get what we want, so be it." She grinned dazzlingly at her husband before suggesting that they call it a night.
* * *
Twilight Jewel and Drifter waited three days before returning to Gourmet Galley, and they again timed their dinner so that they could speak with Onyx before he left the restaurant. When the chef responded to their message, he approached their table as if it housed a rattlesnake under the tablecloth rather than the respectable couple that sat in full view.
"How'd you swing it?" he asked, ignoring Drifter's invitation to sit down. He remained standing, his face brooding.
"Wildwood is getting on in years, and he doesn't have any family who would appreciate that parcel of land he has," Drifter explained nonchalantly.
"And it just so happened that we talked with him just as he was considering putting the land on the market," Twilight Jewel continued. "And he liked our proposal."
Drifter turned his head to indicate the cleaning crew that had just shown up. "Is there
someplace we can go where it would be more private?"
"My place," Onyx quickly stated. He would feel more comfortable on his own turf.
As the threesome crossed town, they refrained from talking as if each was too preoccupied with his or her own thoughts to even acknowledge the presence of the others. Twilight Jewel would not have been happy if she knew that Onyx, in his own mind, was comparing her and Drifter to his own parents with whom Twilight Jewel was not in harmony. Early on in his adult life, Onyx had distanced himself from the wily couple who had given him birth, but he took with him the knowledge of all their nefarious ways.
He sensed that Twilight Jewel was setting him up to fall into her and Drifter's plan for an epicurean restaurant of fine dining. In itself, that was not a problem; in fact, it was what he wanted for himself. But he distrusted the mare from his long experience with finagling types and could not help but wonder if she was helping him or using him. He would have to listen to this plan before he could correctly determine the path he would take.
Although Drifter was uncertain of the outcome of tonight's visit with Onyx, Twilight Jewel harbored no doubts. She sensed his determination to succeed, and she shared that desire. She was ready to grow beyond the small yet successful restaurant in Neighberry that had primed her for this new opportunity in Hayton, and she meant for it to be a success. For that to happen, she needed a chef of repute, ingenuity, and mastery- namely, Onyx. He would fall into her plan. He had to.
A small, plain apartment was the culmination of their trek. Twilight Jewel noted the sparse furnishings with a hint of disapproval, but she quickly realized that the bare necessities were in good taste and high quality. She sat on a simple but comfortable chair while Drifter took the sofa-bed; Onyx seemed to prefer standing, and he leaned against the counter that bordered his minuscule kitchen.
He stared at Twilight Jewel and Drifter, then drawled, "I saw the sign on Wildwood's main gate; do you care to explain?" He had spent the morning after their first visit perusing the properties around Sunset Lake to the north of Hayton and had been astonished to see a professional placard discreetly fixed to the black wrought iron gate that marked the entrance to a crusty and elderly stallion's home. Wildwood was the name of that stallion, and his domain had always been referred to by the same title. The sign had read, Coming soon... Wildwood, In Good Taste. He knew it had to be the brainchild of Twilight Jewel.
"Sunset Lake is such a charming location, don't you think, Onyx, tucked, as it is, into the foothills of the Black Mountains?" Twilight Jewel responded. "And Wildwood... its natural setting, its refined character, its understated elegance... can you imagine a better setting for an eatery in which to display your skill?"
"I'd be a fool to deny that it is a perfect location and a choice setting. But I do have my doubts that the two of you could get your hoof in the door, let alone the money to purchase Wildwood's grand property."
"You underestimate my wife's persuasive powers, Onyx," Drifter smiled. "As we stated earlier, Wildwood was already contemplating some changes. All we had to do is suggest a rather painless way for him to realize his best option."
"I'm still waiting to hear some facts."
Twilight Jewel sighed as if Onyx was stubborn indeed. Her eyes sparkling, she explained, "With no heirs to his property, Wildwood was concerned about what would become of his beautiful hideaway if something were to happen to him. He took a bad fall about a year ago and hasn't been able to ramble about the place as he was used to doing, so he had determined to let Wildwood go and find himself a smaller domicile.
"His unsurmountable problem, however, was finding a buyer for Wildwood who would respect the natural beauty of the land and the unique architecture of the house; the property had been in his family for generations, you understand, and it was a decision of paramount importance."
Onyx found Twilight Jewel's narrative interesting enough that he joined Drifter on the couch, his attention entirely focused on the import of what the mare was relaying. His mind was already leaping ahead to the possibilities, and his blood quickened. "What's the bottom line?"
"Wildwood will retain ownership of the land and all the property at this time, but we," Twilight Jewel indicated the three of them, "would own the business itself, operating out of the house-turned-restaurant which we'll be renting from Wildwood. It is so perfect, Onyx, spread out as it is on different levels!" The mare could not contain her enthusiasm. "The views from the balconies are breathtaking, even with the landscape covered with snow; I can't wait for spring when the trees and flowers and shrubbery will be a riot of color, as Wildwood assures us they will be."
"There's a caretaker's cottage apart from the main house," added Drifter, "and that's all that Wildwood wants for his personal quarters... that and the gardens attached to it, of course. And..." he grinned, "free meals. His live-in attendant isn't too clever in the kitchen."
"There's also a guest house that has fallen into some disrepair since Wildwood began living in relative seclusion," Twilight Jewel relayed. "It's spacious enough to incorporate into two apartments, if we all want a short commute."
"How long a lease?" Onyx queried, leaning forward as if he could not wait to get started.
"After a year, Wildwood will be free to assess our growth... or lack of it. At that time, he'll have the right to terminate..."
"But our investment..."
"... but he understands it may take awhile to get on our hooves and is knowledgeable enough to make a wise decision from the condition of our accounts. Besides which, he isn't going to want to go through the hassle of changing things again; he likes his peace and quiet. And I, for one, am positive that this venture will be a success; Wildwood will have no qualms about renewing our lease after the year is up."
Onyx sat in deep contemplation, trying to imagine the financial and legal demands of the enterprise being considered. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. For Wildwood to be open to such an undertaking after having guarded his property to the point of obsession for years was in itself a miracle. Now all he, Drifter, and Twilight Jewel had to do was present to the public the most extraordinary fare that any pony had ever had the pleasure of tasting. The setting would draw the customers initially; it was up to him as the chef to keep them coming back.
"You said the other evening that I'd have complete control over the kitchen. Does that still hold?"
It was Twilight Jewel who answered. "As the head chef, you will run the kitchen as you deem best... you have the choice of who will work with you, you will control the inventory, and you will be the final arbiter of the menu choices. Drifter will be responsible for the finances, payroll, and budget as well as physical upkeep. I will arrange schedules, manage the help, and oversee the smooth operation of all aspects of the restaurant, making sure that everything is working as it should and that the customers are getting all that they expect... and then taking it a step further so that they are more than satisfied."
His eyes shining with enthusiasm, Onyx was brief in his assent. "I'm in."