The kitchen was filled with hustle and bustle as five girls set to prepare dinner. A tall pale girl stood alongside a green-haired woman in front of the stovetop, while the rest cleaned the table and fetched cutlery and porcelain.
Arya nodded. "It's a Man-Home beef soup, from my home in Hungary. It's not too hard to make, but you need to be careful with the spices and cook the beef before adding the water and tomatoes."
The two looked at the bubbling red stew, now giving off a spicy, meaty scent. “Oh, man, that’s gonna be delicious,” Kaela remarked as she grabbed some glasses from a nearby cabinet.
Tomoe pointed at a covered pot, giving off steam. “What’s in this?”
“Ah - those are bread dumplings. You roll some dough into small shapes and you put them on a steamer like this one. It’s nice if you dip it into the stew. They’re already done, but we’ll keep them warm for the stew.”
Behind them, the three girls prepared the table and laid out the cutlery and plates. Animated conversation flew between the five girls as they waited for the food to finish cooking.
“That other day,” Ayumi said, “when I was having lunch with Atora and Anzu, they told me that some Orange Planet Undines were being investigated by the Association.”
The rest of the girls perked up, intrigued and concerned. “They don’t know why they’re being investigated, though,” Ayumi continued.
Tomoe spoke up from the stovetop. “It’s rare that Undines get investigated…most of the time, it’s the customers that the Board investigates. A long time ago, I can barely remember when, I do remember one of the Himeya Undines got sent off.”
“I’ve never heard of this,” Ayumi responded. “I guess this really was a long time ago?”
“Yes. From what I remember, in a fit of envy at her coworker, an Undine secretly drilled holes in her coworker’s gondola the day she was to perform her Prima test. Before this, she spread a lot of rumors about the poor girl...it was horrible. I’m not sure where she went after, but I remember it was a very tumultuous day in the Himeya building when she was told to pack up her things and leave.”
Gasps came from the younger girls. “That’s cruel!” “I’ve never heard of someone drill holes into someone else’s gondola…” “My family sent me from Man-Home to get away from things like that..” That last comment from Arya drew some curious glances, but Tomoe spoke up before they could ask about it.
“Which makes me think that what the girls did must have been very serious,” Tomoe continued. “Usually, though, there would be rumors about it everywhere if it was like that.”
“Hopefully it was just a big misunderstanding.”
Arya stood and brought the two steaming pots to the table “Dinner’s ready, I hope you will enjoy the meal.”
“Thank you for the meal, Arya!” The four other girls gave their cook thanks and started eating.
The conversation continued as the girls enjoyed their meal - this time, it was about their day at work.
“Arya, how was your first time rowing from the front?”
“It was a good experience.” The pale girl gave a short nod. “I am not experienced at all in leading, but I knew the route well. Eliza was really good rowing from the back and I relied on her consistency to row well.”
The brunette looked down and mumbled, “Thank you...I try my best.”
Ayumi beamed at the two. “Well, Arya, you now have some pointers on how to row from the back, and it’s always good to have experience leading from the front. I want you to lead for me the next time we row together, alright?”
“I look forward to it.”
A brief silence as the girls saw to their meal, broken by Ayumi.
“Oh, I almost forgot to mention to you guys. I’m going to be out the entire day two days from now...The Gondola Association wants me to talk about the company, like how it’s going - stuff like that.”
“When you think about it,” Eliza mused, “We are still a pretty small company, although we are responsible for the busiest ferry route.”
The other girls gave their assent, and Ayumi agreed. “We’ll see what the Gondola Association thinks about what we do. I’ll let you guys know as soon as I get back.”
The meal had finished, and the five girls started cleaning up. Arya and Tomoe were preoccupied washing the dishes, while the other three cleaned the rest of the room.
“Arya,” Tomoe said with a questioning tone, “You mentioned you were sent here by your parents from Man-Home…”
No apparent response from Arya as she continued to wash dishes in silence. Taking the cue, the green-haired woman did not press the question and went back to her chores. The rest, having paused when Tomoe asked the question, also resumed their activities.
The last of the dishes were washed and the kitchen was cleaned, and the girls lounged and drank tea in the main room. Arya brought her warm cup closer to her, looking down at it pensively.
“We weren’t rich in Man-Home,” Arya said in a brooding tone. “Nor were we poor or starving. My family made enough for me to get three meals a day and a semblance of education.”
At this point, the chatter and conversation among the girls ground to a halt, all ears on the pale girl.
"It wasn't that Bulgaria was a bad place to live in. It was certainly better than some places. My mother just wanted me to be in a better place, and she convinced my father to send me off..."
Arya stopped abruptly and stood. "I'm sorry, I've said more than what is proper. I’m going to bed - goodnight." The girl excused herself, almost running up the stairs and closing her room, stunning her coworkers.
"I think it's best to let her tell us about it when she wants to," Eliza piped up. The others agreed, and the four girls silently finished their drinks and went up to their rooms.
Dawn in Neo-Venezia, the canals just starting to become visible with the approaching light. The Green Dream dock had some people lining up already - mostly people with deliveries and luggage to carry to town at first light. Four girls stood around the traghetto loading dock, each of them holding a warm mug.
"Arya left a note?"
Tomoe nodded. "She had something to do, so she borrowed the gondola. She said she'll be back before we open."
"Huh. Wonder where she went...hope she's not upset about last night."
The green-haired woman shook her head. "No...Arya isn't the type to be upset. She's been given the opportunity of a lifetime - to live in a beautiful utopia. Last night wouldn't faze her."
After a while, a light started to emanate from the canal entrance. Arya, rowing a small gondola by herself, smoothly docked and stepped off the boat, tying it before meeting her coworkers and greeting them with a wave.
“Good morning. I hope I’m not late.”
Ayumi smiled and shook her head. “You’re just in time. Kaela, Eliza, let’s start.” The orange-haired girl faced the line and called out, “Good morning, our first ferry to the city center is ready. Please walk forward in an orderly fashion and prepare your fare.”
Ayumi turned to Tomoe as the first two gondoliers led the crowd onto their boat. “Speaking of fares...Tomoe, do we have different fares for children and elderly? When I was in line to go home on our ferry the other day, I heard a kid say he has to pay three coppers, same as everyone else.”
The woman pondered for a short moment. “I believe we let babies and small children on free of charge, but I don’t think we have different fares for children or elderly. We don’t do that on tours.”
“What we run isn’t a tour...I’ll ask for advice from the Gondola Association when I get to their meeting day after next. I was thinking to lower fares for children and elderly, and maybe charge for extra luggage - we’ll see how it goes.”
Tomoe nodded. “It’s a good idea - I doubt the Association would have a problem with it. Hopefully the residents will like it as well...why not ask them while they’re waiting for the next boat?”
Kaela’s voice wafted through the dock, announcing that their gondola is casting off. After a short wait, Tomoe waved at Arya, who followed her and guided more people onto the other ferry. “Have a safe trip,” Ayumi waved at the two as they boarded the ferry and cast off into the larger canal ahead.
At this time of day, the loading dock is rarely empty. Even with the two ferries casting off, a few people were left, lounging around the waiting area. In a corner, a mother looked over her baby as it crooned and fussed, and a child tugged at her shirt’s hem. A man walked across the plaza, carrying a large basket of produce.
“Hey, let me help you with that,” Ayumi stood and ran to the man, who gratefully accepted her offer and handed the basket to her. The two people, straining with effort, lugged the basket to the loading area, where it dropped with a soft thump.
“That was heavy! What is it?”
The man opened the basket, which was filled to the brim with potatoes. “I just dug those up this morning,” the farmer grinned.
The child ran over to the basket and looked over, tipping his toes just to see. “Whoa, so many potatoes! And they’re a bit wet.”
The farmer dropped down to the child. “Well, you dig them up, you see. I wash them clean so you can cook it when you get home.”
“But that’s a lot of potatoes! How’d you wash them so fast?”
The man chuckled. “Well, I put the potatoes in a large machine that washes them for me. And they come out clean and shiny, ready for market.”
“That’s cool! How far is the farm?”
“It’s quite a ways from here. I take my gondola from over the hills to here every morning, and I let the lovely ladies that run this ferry take me to market since it’s easier than docking right at the stands.” This elicited a giggle from Ayumi.
“Can I go there and see your farm?” The boy beamed, his eyes sparkling with excitement.
“Of course! Just ask your mother and make sure you can row to my farm. It is pretty far.”
“Aww, okay.” The boy walked to his mother and talked to her - probably to ask permission to see the farm over the Neo-Venezian hills.
“Mister,” Ayumi faced the farmer. “I was wondering about something. Mind if I ask a question?”
“Oh, sure, no problem.”
“Well,” Ayumi asked, “Will it be alright with you if we started charging for large pieces of baggage, like that basket of yours?”
The farmer hummed as he considered a question. “Well, of course I would like it better if it was free, but I see where you’re coming from. I wouldn’t mind paying a passenger’s fee for this huge basket, really.”
The orange-haired girl nodded. “We haven’t really decided on it yet, but it was good to know that. We’ll tell you about it if it goes through.”
The farmer grinned. “Thanks, a heads-up would be nice.”
A large gondola just turned into their canal - Kaela and Eliza were back with an empty ferry. The two swiftly docked the boat and tied it up. Eliza went up to Ayumi, who greeted her and left the loading area towards the boat.
“Alright, we’re ready,” Eliza called out to the crowd. “Please form a single file and walk forward in an orderly fashion.”
The crowd formed a line and moved forward until Eliza cut the line when there were enough people in the dock to fill the ferry. Eliza caught herself and paused.
“Oh, and don’t forget your fare!”