It was Ayumi’s turn to cook tonight. The other four girls gaped as the rust-haired girl triumphantly slammed a large sizzling plate of stir-fried chicken and vegetables onto the table, completing a pointedly Japanese meal with miso soup, salad, and fresh rice. A quick series of motions brought chopsticks and utensils for all five of them, and the girl brightly clapped her hands to top off her finished work.
“Thank you for the meal!” The girl bowed among cheers and sat herself with her peers. The meal was especially delicious, and the conversation was especially lively this evening - considering the exciting events that occurred during the day.
“That surprise visit scared me,” Kaela mentioned. “When I saw Alicia, I could swear my heart stopped beating for a bit…”
“Yeah, they really did carry through with the surprise inspections,” Ayumi agreed between spoonfuls of food. “I heard they also inspected Himeya’s and Orange Planet’s traghetto crews today, almost at the same time that they looked at our boats.”
“I’m glad we cleaned the boats that other day…” A chorus of assenting murmurs from the table as the girls remembered the smell of hot tar and fresh paint they used to spruce up their boats a few days ago.
Tomoe looked up from her soup to chime in. “That other announcement was such a pleasant surprise, though. Two new boats! Shiny and painted with the green stripe...what an exciting way to end the day.”
“It’s odd, though,” Ayumi pondered, “We asked for one boat so we can stagger maintenance and distribute the wear and tear, but why did they give us another?”
“I mean, the other two companies have more than enough boats for their branches, so maybe they got some unused ones and spruced them up...better than retiring or dismantling them, I suppose.”
“I can’t wait to see how they fare in the water,” Ayumi remarked. “I’ll take it for a spin just before we start tomorrow. Anyone up for some early morning rowing?”
The animated conversation lasted well into the night, well after the dishes have been washed and the kitchen cleaned. The five of them lounged in the company room - some of the girls happily digging into some gelato and the others preferring to enjoy a warm apple cider. Four of the girls finished their desserts and lazily lounged around the room, sharing some muted conversation. Ayumi looked up, having been staring down at her steaming mug of cider in deep thought, and cleared her throat to gain her employees’ attention.
“I’m thinking of sending one or two of our four traghetti to a new route,” Ayumi declared. Her four peers looked at her curiously as she went to get a map from their office room. The girls’ cups and bowls were quickly moved to the side as Ayumi knelt in front of the coffee table and unfurled a map of Neo-Venezia’s waterways. A line marked in green showed their current route - stretching from the main city square, cutting through San Marco’s Rio dei Barcaroli before rejoining the Grand Canal which they traverse to the company dock in Campo Sta. Sofia. With a pen, the girl gingerly marked with red dashed lines a longer and more ambitious route - through Rio de San Giovanni Laterano, then a left turn to reach the northern edge of the city, then a right turn to hug the edge line until they reached the Celestia pier.
“Celestia hasn’t been tapped by the two large gondola companies yet,” Ayumi remarked. “It’s a pier on the northeastern edge of Neo-Venezia that brought in some goods from Murano island and beyond. Since the city council banned motorized boats in the city, the port has been getting much more business since the cargo boats can’t just dock in San Marco anymore and have to drop anchor at the outer piers.”
The rust-haired girl picked up another pen and drew yellow dashed lines into the map - this time, stretching from the Celestia pier and piercing through the Rio de la Pleta to rejoin the Grand Canal, then a right turn to reach San Marco Square. “I want us to be part of their growing business - we can row customers or cargo from there to San Marco, or back to our company dock. It's a longer set of routes, but it's bound to be a very busy one once word gets out.”
The room suddenly came alive with conversation as the employees excitedly reacted to the plans. Questions and discussion flew through rapidly - who's going to row? What kind of cargo will we be carrying? Will one or two boats for each route be enough?
“That's why I want us to row there early tomorrow morning, all of us. We’ll see what the route looks like and we might even see how busy the pier is.”
“We don’t have enough people to row four boats with,” Arya piped up. “We need at least eight people to man all four of our boats. Maybe we should look at inviting more trainees again?”
Tomoe stood and walked to the office - she returned with a small stack of files that she quietly distributed among the five of them. Ayumi opened the first file she got - it was a form detailed with information of a Himeya trainee gondolier that applied for the first batch of Green Dream trainees.
“Tomoe, don’t tell me you spent nights doing this.”
“I may have,” The green-haired woman giggled. “I figured we’d need these eventually.”
Silence filled the room as the girls perused the files. Kaela gasped when she read a former colleague’s file and application. “I never knew she wanted to come work with us too.”
Eliza adjusted her glasses as she reached for another file. “Hopefully, most of these people still want to join us. Some of them may have gotten disheartened after the first pick.”
“At which case they won’t be cut out for the job,” Arya retorted. “Traghetto work is much more tiring and much less prestigious than Undine work. If you don’t love the work, you’ll quickly hate it.”
“A harsh but fair point,” Tomoe remarked. “In any case, if they still want to join they are most certainly welcome. I think me, Ayumi, and Kaela can take a trainee under our wing - that brings us up to eight.”
Arya and Eliza started to speak, but Ayumi quickly cut in. “No, it’s not that you’re not good enough. However, Kaela does have a year’s experience on you and she can easily match with another Single - probably her friend if she’s still interested. You two will probably end up rowing together - which would be great for you two to work on your rowing and ferrying skills.”
Ayumi furled the map and stood, holding her now empty mug. “ Anyway, we’ll arrange things with the new trainees once they move in. I’ll take care of the search for trainees. For now, just keep up your good work!”
The cue was taken by the four employees, who also stood and cleaned up. As they started to filter out of the common room, the rust-haired girl sent them off with a reminder.
“Oh, and don’t forget our early morning trip tomorrow!”
It was humid and cool the next morning. The summer sun was just about to show in the horizon when the five girls stepped into the two new boats and unmoored them. With a gentle push from Eliza on one boat and Tomoe in the other, the boats pushed off from the dock and into the small canal. With smooth motions, the two boats cleared the canal and turned left into the empty Grand Canal. Lamps along the edges of the canal gave them some vision, showing the worn facade of the buildings that lined the waterway. An illuminated covered bridge came into view as the boats traversed a bend in the canal.
Ayumi piped up as she rowed from the front of the forward boat. “The Rialto bridge. Although we usually pass this when heading to San Marco, we’ll be turning left to the canal right before it. Follow my lead, Eliza, Arya.” A sweeping motion brought her boat into a much narrower canal - Eliza and Arya smoothly followed in their boat.
“We’ll take the first left and then the first right.” The waterways were tight in this part of Neo-Venezia, and gondole parked along the various buildings made for an even tighter squeeze. The buildings towered over them, letting very little light through. The lamps that hung on the boats’ prows provided enough light to safely row with, but casted large shadows over the tall facades. The boats joined the larger Rio de San Giovanni Laterano, and the girls saw the first hints of sunlight peek in between the buildings. They pressed on, announcing their presence before crossing the first large intersection. With the busier and larger canal they saw the first stirrings of life - clothes being hung from terraces, the occasional personal gondola, the scent of breakfast and sounds of cooking filtering in from some of the homes.
“I’m glad we had breakfast before we left.” The five girls chuckled as they plied the larger waterway eastward. A fork in the canal appeared; they took the left fork and continued on. Some residents looked on at them as they rowed; a stray cat mewed and followed them along the walkway until it ended. After crossing a small T-intersection, Ayumi signaled them to take the next left. The once placid water became slightly choppier as they neared the city’s edge. Small bridge after small bridge blocked their view until they gave way to open water just ahead.
“We’re almost there.”
The two boats stopped as the girls took in the view. The sun shone just over the horizon to their right; boats of varying sizes puttered through the water ahead of them. Ahead of them, some distance away, stood the large Venetian cemetery island, bristling with carefully-tended cypress trees.
The two boats turned right and stayed close to the city’s edge. As they rowed, they passed a large walled garden to their right, with ivy and trellis creeping over the top of the wall. The sound of dock activity alerted them to their destination just up ahead - the Celestia pier. Even at this time of day, motorboats and gondole of various kinds are already moored in the pier, with men and women hauling produce and goods onto the pier or into their boats. A passenger ferry was also there, with few people walking out and into the dock.
“Alright - we’ll dock here and I’ll introduce you to the harbormaster.” The two gondolas slid into the docks and stopped as the girls tied and stepped off them. The five girls walked to the center of the dock, where a lit booth produced a silhouette of the Celestia pier’s harbormaster. As they approached, the harbormaster’s head peeked out the booth - a brunette girl grinned at Ayumi, recognizing her.
“Morning,” the brunette greeted Ayumi. “Welcome to my dock. Were these the employees you mentioned the other day?”
The rust-haired girl nodded. “With luck, you’ll be seeing these faces on the regular pretty soon.”
“I hope I do, too,” the harbormaster agreed. “Word gets around here pretty quickly, and I’m sure at least a couple businesses based at Murano or Vignole wouldn’t mind moving from the busier Arsenale port and avoid competing with large ships for docking space or the high fees - as long as someone’s there to take their cargo closer to market.”
“And that’s partly why I came here today too,” Ayumi piped up, producing a small bundle of papers. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to post these notices in the waiting area - they just have our name, our proposed routes, and our usual pricing. Can we put them up?”
“Of course, of course,” the brunette waved the question off. “Whatever it takes for you to get business here, miss Jasmine - it’ll only help us both. I know you’re busy, so I’ll get you right to it. Best of luck!”
The traghetto employees exchanged goodbyes with the harbormaster and walked to the main covered waiting area. The girls posted their small flyers on the waiting area’s bulletin boards and handed them to waiting passengers as they introduced themselves. After they distributed the flyers they quickly returned to their boats and undocked, heading back to Santa Sofia before the working day begins anew.
The summer sun quickly took to the skies in the early morning. The previously dark, narrow waterways they traversed earlier became much brighter and easier to see in. It also saw more traffic - a gondola moving the opposite direction squeezed between the traghetto gondolas and the facade.
Ayumi faced Tomoe as they completed a turn. “Tomoe, do you have the time?” The green-haired girl pulled out a pocket watch from her uniform and indicated it was a quarter before seven o’clock in the morning.
“Oh, good - we can catch our breath before the first boat has to leave.”
The two boats reentered the Grand Canal, now filled with life. Some trainee Undines traversed the canal, eager to start the day’s training early. Several personal gondolas and rowboats can be seen gliding on the water as well. Ayumi turned the first boat into the small canal that led to their dock, and Arya followed behind her. The dock’s waiting area was filled with people, some of them waving to the gondoliers as they rowed into the dock and started to disembark.
Ayumi was the first to step off, heading straight into the waiting area. Among the various passengers sat two familiar faces - a bespectacled girl sporting an orange ponytail and a smaller girl with black bob-cut hair. The two girls got up and greeted the surprised Ayumi.
“Atora, Anzu...what are you doing here? It’s been so long!” The three girls convened for an embrace, and Ayumi looked over the two girls as they broke the hug.
“Hold on...where’s your cap? And isn’t that…” Atora, as strict as she was with her uniform even outside of duty, was not wearing one today. Both she and Anzu sported a different uniform - instead of the Orange Planet regalia, their gowns were adorned with a green strip.
“Your uniform,” Atora finished her friend’s thoughts and looked at her. “We’ve been thinking about it for a while now. The time we spent on the traghetto was the most fulfilling experience I’ve ever had in my entire career.”
“When we talk to the people who spend their lives here,” Anzu chimed in, “I missed it when we stopped. When I was talking about the Bridge of Sighs for the hundredth time I felt so hollow.”
“And so here we are - and all we want is to work in the traghetto, just like we used to. I do hope you will have us, Ayumi.” The two girls bowed to Ayumi, who quickly reddened as more passengers and her employees took notice of the scene unfolding in front of them.
“W-well,” Ayumi stuttered, taken aback for a second. She quickly recovered, however, and sported a grin. “I really can’t say no to you two. Not with your dedication to come in so early in the morning, and especially not with your obviously prepared speech.”
The three girls tittered and smiled at each other for a moment, before Ayumi suddenly took on a fierce, stern look. “Very well, then. From this moment on, you are hereby employed by the Green Dream traghetto company for sufficient pay and room and board - as long as you still remember how to row, that is.”
The two girls grinned at their friend. “We look forward to working with you!”