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1870, off the California coast
Clouds were painted on the flat blue-gray sky, not even a gull disturbing the barren heavens. From great black stacks, ribbons of white billowed behind the rapidly moving ship. Although the steamer cut steadily through the waves, it seemed it wasn't moving at allas though Huiann would spend the rest of her life standing on this deck, waiting for her new life to begin.
When she imagined meeting her husband for the first time, she wavered between nervous anticipation and wrenching fear. Was he handsome, ugly, old, young? Would he treat her gently and listen to her thoughts or expect her to keep silent about her ideas as she tended his house? She hadn't been allowed to ask such questions when her parents announced she was to be a bride.
Huiann's parents had found their three daughters husbands one by one, but by the time it was her turn, the family's prosperity was depleted. So when prosperous American businessman Xie Fuhua sent his agent Lui Dai to secure a bride from the home country and the man spotted Huiann walking in the park, it was considered a miraculous blessing.
"The gods have favored my employer, Xie Fuhua, with riches to match his name," Lui Dai explained to Huiann's father. "Any family would be lucky to make such an alliance. With your daughter's favorable face and family name, she'll be the perfect bride for him."
"Our ancestors smile on us today! Such a husband will give you a secure future," her mother assured her, and in less time than it took to steep tea, the contract was signed and sealed, along with Huiann's fate. She was to be married to the illustrious Xie Fuhua upon her arrival in San Francisco.
Although Huiann had always dreamed of traveling to foreign lands, faced with the reality her heart ached for Suzhou, her beautiful town on the Yangtze, which she might never see again. Her parents would rest with their ancestors by Lake Taihu while she would be buried far from home.
What would her new home be like? Would her in-laws accept her into their family with warm embraces or be disappointed in the bride their son had acquired from the home country? A mother-in-law could make her new daughter's life heaven or hell on earth. And with Huiann's impatient nature, she was quite likely to do something to earn chastisement and bring shame upon her family name. It was as inevitable as the west wind blowing.
Curling her hand around the wet iron railing, she gazed once more at the turbulent gray-green waves before turning to go below deck to check on her chaperone in their stateroom. Madam Teng, another of Xie's servants sent to escort his bride to America, was miserable with seasickness and lay moaning in her berth day after day.
As Huiann descended from the bright world above to the suffocating dimness of the saloon deck, the thrum of great turbines rattled her very bones. The ship was a fire-breathing dragon devouring the miles between two continents. On the lowest level, men shoveled coal into the beast's belly to keep her moving. It was like the story of Ping Liu, forced to serve the dragon king for a dozen years to free a princess then tricked into eighty more years of slavery. Huiann felt sorry for the toiling men and curious about the mysterious world below her feet.
She passed her cabin, continuing along the corridor to the stairway leading down to the boiler room. She opened the door. Instantly the throb of the engine grew even louder. How deafening it must be for the men working right next to the great engine. She placed her slipper on the top step then the next. What was the worst that could happen?