As soon as they stepped off the platform, a guard led them into the main fortress. Only cool air circulated through the hallways. The air felt nice to the desert dragons, but it was still colder than what they were used to. As Sindri and Ansar continued to follow the guard, they walked down a long hallway that seemed to have no end. The desert dragons stared at one another, preparing to say something about the length when they finally reached a ballroom. The room was immense and full of round tables. Intricately carved mantels and wood panels lined the walls. The ceiling was painted with gold leaves and detailed, patterned decorations.

Sindri was escorted to sit at the center of the room, on one of the round tables, and Ansar sat next to him. He was very, very nervous. His voice wasn't the steadiest as he turned towards his friend. "I know that I said this already, but I truly am thrilled you're here with me."

"Well, you're lucky that I managed to clear up my schedule in time," The beige dragon replied cheekily. He came from a merchant family and, as the youngest son, he was required to help the most. But, his parents treated Sindri as another son. So, Ansar was able to tag along with him with little hassle.

Sindri nodded with a small smile. Having him there with him really did help calm his nerves, even if just a little. They both looked up as a tall, elegant figure approached them from one of the four corners of the ballroom. As she neared, they realized that it was Solare Vitara. She was a white dragon with short, silver hair that was longer on the front and shorter in the back. Her eyes were an icy blue. On top of her head rested a silver customized crown that swirled around her webbed ears and dangled with tanzanites. She held a long white staff in her hands that tapered into a swirling, encased gem at the top.

"Gallant Sindri," She addressed. "I am here to introduce your fellow Gallants. Fear not. Though you see them in numbers now, you will interact with them one at a time." A small smile formed on her face. "I remember that, for me, the first impression was rather daunting."

Sindri nodded to let her know that he was as ready as he'd ever been. Just as the Solare had warned, the Gallants strolled right into the ballroom in a single line, stopping just a few feet before them. The two desert dragons had never seen so many colors in all their lives.

"Gallant Madhal is from the sea," She introduced as the first dragon stepped forward.

Madhal was an indigo dragon. His long, violet hair was set in a low, fishtail braid that fell over his shoulder and down to his waist. His azure eyes never left Sindri's orange ones as he leaned down to take the apricot dragon's hand. "The pleasure is all mine," He purred as he kissed the back of it before walking back to the end of the line.

So many colors, Sindri thought to himself as he saw the first of the suitors approach him. The apricot dragon was a bit surprised when Madhal took his hand and kissed it. "It's nice to meet you, too..."

"I'm sure he's pleeenty pleased," Ansar whispered teasingly into Sindri's ear, low enough for only him to hear.

Sindri blushed a little, lightly elbowing him. In his opinion, all of the gallants were more handsome than he considered himself even to be. Granted, they were all dressed in elegant garb from their home biomes and his 'desert' best seemed rather plain in comparison. But, the blonde still considered himself a touch inferior in comparison. He questioned, once again, the ancient magic that had chosen him to be the Solare representative and not any of them, instead.

"Gallant Ilohir is from the taiga," The current Solare introduced as the second dragon stepped forward.

He was a dark jade dragon. Ilohir was a bit shorter than Madhal and had short, sapphire hair with friendly sea-foam green eyes. "Looking forward to getting to know ya." He said as he shook Sindri's hand.

"Not bad, but not much of an impression," Ansar whispered.

Sindri personally agreed that it wasn't much of a first impression...but, he refused to judge any of them so quickly. He shook his head slightly as he tried not to smile at his friend. He should have known that Ansar wouldn't last long before he began to misbehave, even in the fortress.

"Gallant Kelius is from the grassland," The Solare introduced as the third dragon stepped forward.

He was a copper dragon. He was the shortest of all the Gallants, but that still made him taller than Sindri. He had shoulder-length auburn hair and crimson eyes. With a mischievous smirk, he quickly dove down to press a kiss to Sindri's lips. "Thanks for the taste." He snickered on his way back.

Sindri sat there stunned as he registered the fact that he was kissed before he could even put a name to the face. That was when Ansar stood up from his chair.

"Hey now! Don't go taking so many liberties, that goes for all of you. He's not some doll for you to play with." He warned as he sat back down, but his posture was stiffer than it was before and his yellow eyes sharper.

After Ansar's outburst, Solare Vitara gave a slight pause before introducing the next dragon. Sindri briefly wondered what she thought of Ansar, and if he could ever keep that kind of a straight face in the future. "Gallant Emyve is from the volcanic isles."

He was a beautiful burgundy dragon with carmine red hair that reached down to his ankles in intricate loops and braids. His hyacinth purple eyes narrowed as he carefully approached Sindri and bowed gracefully. Without another word, he walked back to the end of the line.

"Not very talkative, is he?" Ansar whispered to Sindri.

Sindri sighed as he realized that he was to be subjected to Ansar's opinions whether he wanted to hear them or not.

"Gallant Ruthed is from the rainforest." The Solare continued.

He was an aquamarine dragon with ear-length teal hair and honey-colored eyes. "You desert dragons are rather short, aren't you?" He immediately asked without thinking. With a soft curse, he frowned. "Ah, forgive me, I didn't mean to be rude..." He shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other. "I think I'll just head back now."

Sindri blinked. "We're probably not the best comparison..." He replied sheepishly with a smile. Both of them were rather small, even amongst their own people.

Ansar merely huffed in reaction to what Ruthed blurted out. "He sure speaks his mind, I guess." He whispered.

"Forgive me, but we have had no word from the Gallant of the mountains..." The Solare apologized with a slight frown on her face.

Sindri looked to Ansar, wondering why that particular Gallant was missing. Before any more words could be exchanged, they heard someone burst through the doors from the opposite corner.

"Wait! I...I am here," Called out a sky blue dragon as he ran towards them. His white hair was in a low ponytail that reached down to his mid-back. His eyes were a slate gray color.

"As I mentioned before, Gallant Gonuret is from the mountains." The Solare introduced belatedly. If she was as unsettled as any of the others, she did not show it.

"I apologize wholeheartedly for being late," Gonuret began as he walked up to Sindri and handed him a rare yellow flower that only bloomed at the highest peaks of the mountains that made up his home. "I heard that your hair was golden and I couldn't risk it, you see. I would have regretted it my entire life if I didn't bring you one...whether you turned out to be my lifemate or not."

The apricot dragon smiled a little, feeling slightly touched at the gesture, as he took the flower. "Thank you. I'm glad you could make it."

"Not bad for being late," Ansar grumbled somewhere behind him.

Solare Vitara tapped her staff on the ground to get everyone's attention. "Please choose the Gallant that you wish to interact with for the rest of the day and the rest will be roomed in pairs within the Gallant Hall."

"What? Already?" Sindri asked, a bit surprised. "I don't want to play favorites. It's still too soon... so, why don't we go in the order that they were introduced?" That seemed fair to him. Some made a good first impression. Others seemed like they were nervous. "I suppose it's Gallant Madhal for today."

"They sure don't waste any time here, do they," Ansar scoffed under his breath.

Solare Vitara smiled, though her icy blue eyes were a bit sharp as they focused on Ansar's yellow ones. "And since there are no other vacancies, you will have to be the third roommate to one of the sets of Gallants, young Visionary."

"What?" Ansar gasped, his mouth falling wide open. "Can't I just stay with Sindri in his room?"

"I'm afraid not," Solare Vitara explained. "As the future Solare, Gallant Sindri must remain un-compromised until he chooses his lifemate. Until then, no one is allowed to share a room with him."

Sindri did not like hearing that Ansar couldn't stay in the room with him, but far be it for him to argue about rules that had existed for centuries. "I guess that can't be helped...I'm sorry about that, Ansar."

"Very well," Solare Vitara conceded with a nod. "Then the room assignments will be as follows; since Gallant Madhal will spend most of the day with Gallant Sindri, then Visionary Ansar and Gallant Ruthed will share his room. That way, you two have time to situate yourselves until Gallant Madhal returns. Gallant Kelius and Gallant Gonuret will be situated in the room next to them. And, Gallant Ilohir and Gallant Emyve will share the third room. You will find that your quarters are more than spacious enough to accommodate you."

As the Solare led the rest of the Gallants and Ansar to their respective rooms, Madhal stayed behind with Sindri. He held out his elbow for Sindri to take. "Shall we explore the fortress together?"

Ansar glanced over his shoulder mournfully at Sindri as he left. But, a wry smile formed on his face when he saw his best friend mouth 'good luck' to him. 'You too,' he mouthed back.

The apricot dragon turned his attention to Madhal. "That sounds great, actually" He smiled a little. Exploring the fortress was on his list of things to do. "Shall we get going then?" He suggested as he walked on ahead of Madhal, ignoring the elbow for now.

Madhal chuckled and shook his head at Sindri's bypassing his elbow. He was starting to like the blonde already. "Certainly."

The two of them began by walking down the long hallway again. Only, this time they walked down the other side. They ended up on yet another walkway, this one a bridge with open arches and buttresses that led to another building of the fortress. From there, they could see some of the different sections of biomes that met at the fortress. On one side, they could see where the sea met the forest, and the forest met the snow caps. On the other side, they could see the volcanic isles, the mountains, and the desert.

"So, everything really does converge here at the fortress," Madhal mused aloud. The two of them walked slower to take in the sights.

Sindri's eyes widened as he, too, physically saw for the first time just how the fortress truly was the center of all their lands. The view was simply breathtaking. "I've never seen anything like this..."

"Neither have I," Madhal replied.

After they walked in silence for a while, Sindri figured that he better start the interview process. "So, do you swim everywhere in the sea? What's it like?" The underwater city was just about the opposite of the desert tribe.

"We are adapted to being underwater, so we do swim frequently." Madhal began. "However, we do have shielded bullet trains leading to our biome neighbors and here to Middlemost." His gaze fell on the distant sea as he spoke. "Our city has many glass windows and doors, even on ceilings. We like to keep watch over the sea life even when we're not in the water. It is a tranquil place."

Sindri listened to the other intently as he tried to picture such a place in his mind. "I'd like to visit some day. The desert tribe is much more guarded and private. We seem to mind our own business, but we're actually very observant and loyal to one another." He had dreamed about visiting the other tribes one day. "What's your family like?" He continued. "I'm an only child."

"I have three sisters, but it's almost as if I were an only child, too. My parents spoiled their youngest child rotten," He explained with a wink. The indigo dragon took hold of his long, violet braid and held it up for Sindri to see. "Growing up with so many girls, there wasn't much I could do other than to not go against them. They loved the color of my hair and didn't want me to cut it. I had to figure out different ways to keep the entire mass of it out of the way. So, I learned how to make all different kinds of braids." A little smirk formed on his face. "Feel free to touch it if you like."

"That was probably bound to happen as the youngest and as the only boy, to boot." Sindri pointed out with a chuckle. Madhal's hair was longer than his own, and now he understood why. He reached his hand out to take hold of the end of the braid, a gentle smile forming on his face. "Your hair's very soft. You must take good care of it."

Madhal found that he rather liked seeing Sindri's smile. "May I?" He asked as he reached out to touch some of the blonde locks. The strands weren't nearly as soft as his own, but they weren't dry and coarse, as one would expect a person out in the sun every day would have. "You seem to take good care of your own as well."

"Ah..." Sindri answered, a little nervous. "I'm not so sure about all that. I wear a hood when I'm out, so I don't fry. It shields me from the sun and shields my hair in tangent, but I don't particularly give it any extra care." As the two continued to walk in silence for another moment, he decided to drop the big one. "So, what do you look for in a lifemate?"

"To be honest, I am shallow at times," He began without any hesitation. "I wouldn't want to have a lifemate that outshines me on my arm, nor a lifemate that does not complement my looks," Madhal admitted. "Physical aspects aside, just a good listener with a kind heart would do me just fine." His azure eyes were drawn to the change of colors in the sky. "Looks like the sun's about to set. We should head back. I'm not sure how cold it gets here at night, but what kind of a Gallant would I be if I allowed the Solare representative to fall ill on the first date?"

Sindri listened attentively. "You're very sincere. I like that. Thank you." He, too, noticed how the sun was setting. Though he wished that he could stay and watch it set, the indigo dragon was right. He couldn't afford to get sick. Instead, he nodded as he led the way to the hallway. "You're right. Let's head back."

::::::

"So...interesting hairstyle," Ansar conversed from a hammock hung high above one of the beds. He was sitting down in the middle of it, his legs swinging idly, as they both waited for Madhal to return so that they could get some sleep.

"Yours too," Ruthed replied as he motioned at the brown locks with his nose.

"These are natural curls, you know," Ansar replied cheekily, running a hand through the short brown strands.

"We have to find some fun things to do around here tomorrow." The aquamarine dragon suggested. "In the meantime, want to play a game of cards and stones?"

"Now you're talking my language!" Ansar replied as he dropped off the hammock onto Ruthed's bed, where they began to play. They were well into their fifth round when they heard a knock on the door. "Back finally? Guess we'll have to finish this later." The score had been an even two versus two, but their current deciding round had come to an abrupt halt.

"No one's naked, sadly!" Ruthed called out to the door, Ansar snickering behind him.

Madhal walked in, followed by Sindri. Ansar walked up to the apricot dragon and gave him a big hug. "Good to see you're still in one peace."

"Good evening." Sindri greeted them both before hugging his friend back. Spending so much time away from Ansar felt odd, since they were usually joined at the hip. But, knowing that he was there for him during such a big transition was more than enough. "What are we doing for dinner?"

"Someone from the kitchens came earlier to all the rooms to let everyone know that they were bringing dinner to us," Ansar replied.

Sindri sighed with relief. He didn't think he would be able to make it all the way back to the grand hall. "I hate to cut this short, but I'm still pretty tired from our traveling earlier today, so I'm going to turn in early. Good night, everyone." He gave Ansar one more hug before he returned to his chambers. Once there, he tossed himself onto the bed.

To make such a definitive decision after spending only a short while with complete strangers didn't seem fair to him. Madhal seemed nice and sincere, but he didn't feel a strong enough connection during their brief time together to want anything more than friendship from him. At least, not yet. The apricot dragon could only hope that, eventually, one of the Gallants managed to take hold of his heart.

He was still running the day's events through his mind when sleep claimed him. He didn't even last long enough to wait for dinner to come to him that night.