"In the cicada's cry
No sign can foretell
How soon it must die."
Every seven years, in the month of Gamelion, when the rains stopped, the Ambracians celebrated the festival of cicadas.
For seven nights a different youth slept in the inner sanctum of Eos' temple, hoping for a visit from Tithonus. Centuries earlier, the goddess had rewarded him with the gift of immortality but not eternal youth, so her handsome lover grew older, shriveling with the passing ages, until he became a silver-winged cicada.
Remorseful, Eos let him resume his mortal form for one night every seven years and spend it with a handsome seventeen-year old boy. At dawn, the chosen youth, filled with Tithonus' seed, could ask for a single gift. He had to ask, had to speak the words, or the gift wouldn't work. That gift never varied, part of the ritual itself, and every boy left the temple eternally young.
The festival was the last of its kind. As schoolchildren knew, Zeus threatened permanent mortality to any god who gave a mortal ambrosia, even refusing Aphrodite, his favorite daughter, when she begged on hands and knees for the life of Adonis as he lay dying from the boar's wound. ‘You want your lover to last forever? Next time, have a son with him, and make sure the boy's chosen at the festival of cicadas.' She never took another mortal lover and crushed anemones under her slim white feet. A flower was no substitute for a lover.
Bacchylides of Ceos composed an ode to the festival, while women throughout the Peloponnese wore gold hairpins shaped like cicadas. A small group of Spartan warriors founded the Cicada Band and carried into battle shields emblazoned with silver wings. At Susa, the city founded by Tithonus, a cult rose to him, and the Susanese fought with the Ambracians to move the festival there. Tradition won, as it usually did, and every seven years, the cicadas sang in Ambracia, and Tithonus woke up after a night of love and a beautiful boy asked for a gift.
The festival's popularity made the townspeople proud, and competitive. This year, after a season of war and drought, the Fates stumbled and tripped through the lives of the seven youths handpicked by Eos' priests. One slipped on a wet bathhouse floor and broke his wrist. The next day, arm in a sling, he accused the others, swearing someone pushed him, but witnesses assured the magistrate that no one had been near enough. Another boy caught the flux, and his parents shouted poison. The priest of Asclepius disagreed, and pointed to the green pears in a bowl beside their son's bed. A third one backed out to join the cult of Dionysus, which promised a very different reward, while a fourth claimed a sick aunt needed his help, although he was spotted in Argos a week later, flashing fistfuls of dinars at the whores.
The priests of Eos kept unrolling their scroll, moving further down the list of names. Eventually, they came to Iphicles. At a public meeting, a few of them scoffed, saying that only the sons of full citizens could participate. History, one said. Tradition, another echoed. But after the battle of Crocus Field, free-born youths were in short supply. Championed by Hylas, the head priest, who had the second most beautiful body Iphicles had ever seen, the others soon followed.
"At least he's handsome," one said with a shrug. "Tithonus could do worse."
Lycurgus, Iphicles' owner, who'd bought him at a slave auction after the battle, happily paid the entrance fee. "Imagine the work an immortal slave could do," he told the priests, rubbing his rough hands. "I'd save a fortune."
So Iphicles received his invitation to the festival of cicadas. He spent the first night being sick behind the cistern in the slave's quarters on Lycurgus' farm. In the morning, the foreman threatened to beat him, but did nothing. ‘Don't want to damage valuable property.' The truth, as the slaves all knew, was tricker: the last time he whipped Iphicles, a ploughshare fell from the barn wall and sliced off three of his toes. If it looked and smelled like divine protection...
Iphicles knew better, but kept quiet.
A week later, Iphicles went to the temple with the other boys. There, he was bathed, shaved, oiled and perfumed, then dressed in a thin white tunic that skimmed his thighs and showed his balls and the tip of his long cock. Hylas assigned them each a bed in a room beneath the sanctified chamber, and forbade touching themselves or each other. For once in their lives they listened, although everyone's cock was swollen. Anything for immortality.
At twilight, they gathered on the marble steps of Eos' temple. In the square below, the villagers watched as the priests opened seven wooden boxes that lay seven paces from seven potted apple trees. As Hylas prayed to the goddess, the nymphs emerged, dazed and dusky, and crawled in black thousands to the trees, backs splitting. Hungry, they climbed the branches, settling on the thinnest ones, and changed from black to white, their dead shells snagged on rough grey bark. Their translucent wings began to unfold, slick with dew.
As the reborn cicadas gently tested each one, they caught the red of the apples, the green of the leaves, the purple of the sky. The Ambracians cheered, hoping they wouldn't die either, but be reborn, pure and beautiful like the cicadas.
While the boys around him clapped, Iphicles kept his mouth shut and his hands by his sides. He was wishing too hard to move. Even when the cicadas began to sing, filling the air with calls for love, and Hylas led the mayor's son up the crescent steps and into the temple, while the crowd thundered, Iphicles stayed still, rigid with hope.
That night, on a thin pallet in the temple's core, swarmed by excited whispers and cicadas' song, Iphicles lay on his back, staring up at a fresco faded by a thousand years of staring eyes. Morpheus avoided him, put off by the tension, and Iphicles wished the same wish with silent fervor, until Hylas roused them just before dawn.
Taking a side door through the temple garden, they went to the temple's colonnaded front, lining up to watch the bronze doors, the villagers rustling impatiently behind them. Light from the crushed-orange sky streamed between the tall columns onto the doors, but nothing happened.
They all understood what it meant. Nothing can be a powerful sign.
A woman began to cry, while Hylas went to collect the mayor's son, who refused to accept his own mortality. He came out soon after, the priest behind him, his face choked and grey with death, and collapsed in his parents' arms.
The cicadas hummed, and Iphicles wished.
For the next six nights, Iphicles lay quietly in his bed, and every morning, for the next five mornings, he watched Hylas collect a broken boy from the temple.
On the sixth morning, in a smoky amber dawn, Tithonus rejected the sixth boy, and Iphicles breathed in air sweet with apples and dew. His body shook, and he nearly fell to the courtyard floor. Around him, the celebration began, the hungry crowd heading to tables spread with bowls of fruit, jugs of wine, jars of honey. Most smiled at him first, or cheered his name, although a few, including the mayor's son and a boy with his arm in a sling, glared with jealous fury.
Iphicles, who'd spent his life jealous of his brother Hercules, felt an odd kinship with them.
Then Hylas came to him. "You're the one," he said. "How does it feel?" Iphicles just shook his head as Hylas led him back to bed. "I'll be by later to prepare you. For now, get some sleep. You have a long night ahead of you." He smiled and left him alone.
Iphicles went to his cot in the corner. He lay there for hours, studying Tithonus' wide, unsuspecting smile.
When the light from the window glimmered gold, Hylas returned. "It's time to get ready," he said. "You must be excited. Who wouldn't be?"
They walked through the temple's pale green halls toward the piscina, green and steamy like a cave under the sea. Inside, at the edge of a steaming pool, Hylas pulled off Iphicles' tunic and eased him into the water. A fresh one lay neatly folded on a wooden chest, beside a row of jars and a clean pile of towels.
"I was excited, although I wasn't the one."
Iphicles looked at him, waiting.
"Seven years ago, it was my turn. I was third. He never came. My parents were devastated. So was I. It changed everything." He helped Iphicles from the water, patting him dry, then opened the jar of oil. "Afterward, all I thought about was death. I stopped sleeping, eating. It was terrible. That's why I became a priest. But you... You're going to live forever." He spread the amber liquid in slow circles, rubbing it everywhere. "Lie down on the table."
The soft scented towel felt like a cloud under him, and he floated against it, spreading his arms like wings over his head. Hylas took out the razor, and with deft strokes, ran the blade under Iphicles' arms, rinsing it in a silver bowl. Next, he swept it over his chest until Iphicles' skin gleamed, and then across his legs, starting from the ankles. Finally: "Open for me. And don't move."
While Hylas worked the razor between his thighs, Iphicles closed his eyes and remembered the first time he'd opened his legs this wide for a stranger... If the god of war could be considered a stranger. Definitely more dangerous than a bronze razor.
"On your back now."
More shaving, like a rough cat's tongue across his flesh. Ares had licked him, the third time, after Iphicles told him he was joining up with Onomarchus against Ares' favorite, Philip. Because Philip *was* Ares' favorite, and Iphicles hated him. Ares knew, of course, and laughed at him. Then he'd taken Iphicles to his bed in the halls of war and licked him until he came. Now, with Hylas' razor tracing his balls, Iphicles' cock filled, hung thick and heavy.
"You want him, don't you?" Hylas asked, helping Iphicles into a second bath, the hot water biting his sensitive skin. "Wait until you feel his mouth on you. He's supposed to be incredible. Can come over and over again, so he can go all night like a god. You'll love it."
Iphicles, relaxing as the cloth stroked his body, sat straighter. "I don't want it. I don't want him."
"What do you mean?" He helped Iphicles from the water, which pooled at his feet on the floor's tiny colored stones.
"Nothing." The oil on Hylas' strong hands soothed his skin, warm and arousing, and he closed his eyes again, remembering.
With a hand on Iphicles' hip, Hylas guided him onto the table, on his hands and knees this time. "Beautiful," he said, his voice catching, and rubbed the tight hole in slow circles. "You need to be ready for him, so it won't hurt. Has anyone ever been inside you?" His finger, still turning, slipped in.
"Yes. I have a... There's been someone else."
"Good. That'll make things easier." The finger slid back out. "You're ready for him now, relaxed and open. He's lucky to have you." As he helped Iphicles down, Hylas touched his arm very gently. "Maybe, after it's over, you'll come back here and let me love you."
"Maybe." It didn't sound like a lie, and Iphicles was glad. He didn't want to hurt Hylas, especially not today, when everything would finally be right.
"You have someone." It wasn't a question. "Don't worry. Whatever happens," Hylas said, cleaning his hands, "I'll make sure that Lycurgus frees you. You'll be able to return home and tell your family that you'll live forever."
"That'd be something to see." He took the tunic from Hylas and dropped it over his head, then sat on a chair near the chest. His hands shook, and he rubbed his naked thighs as Hylas combed his hair.
"You don't get along with them?"
"I didn't fit in. It's why I left and joined the army at Pherae. Picked the wrong side, though. But it wasn't all bad." Just how it ended, with nothing.
A cork popped behind him, wafting spice, and Hylas touched the ends of Iphicles' hair and the sides of his throat with a crystal stopper, then knelt between his thighs and perfumed them. "One last thing," Hylas said, and gave him a small cinnamon stick. "Tithonus is going to love you. You're perfect, and soon you'll be this way forever."
On their way to the main chamber, Iphicles paused at a window to catch his breath. Outside, the cicadas sang in the apple trees.
"They don't live long, once their wings are out. They mate, then start to die. It's happening already." Hylas pointed to the translucent wings shining between the fallen apples on the courtyard.
"It's alright," Iphicles said. His turn to touch Hylas. "They're not crying when they make that noise. It's love."
Hylas smiled, but his eyes stayed sad. "Maybe that's how it sounds to you. C'mon. It's time." And they passed the rest of the way in silence.
The main chamber had no windows, its walls and ceiling draped in light green silk. The same fabric hung from the canopied bed.
"Take off your tunic and give it to me." He laid it across the back of a chair beside the bed. "Goodnight, Iphicles," he said, and kissed him, then parted the curtains. "Get in." When Iphicles was lying there, he added, "I'll see you at dawn. Everyone will be there, waiting to see the new immortal."
The curtains closed, and he lay there, tense, in the silk cocoon. The torches burning on either side of the bed sent shadows dancing across the canopy. When he saw a tall one go still, Iphicles stopped breathing. Just one night. That's it. Then he'd have what he wanted.
The silk folds were thrown back, revealing a long, well-muscled male body. A thick cock, the head shiny and wet, jutted from a tangle of dark hair between hard thighs. "I've waited a long time for this, Iphicles," a low voice said.
Iphicles gasped and sat up. It couldn't be... But someone else climbed in beside him. Tithonus was beautiful, of course, with high cheekbones, wide grey eyes, wavy dark hair that fell to his broad shoulders. Just not like Ares. "What do you want me to do?"
"You're eager for it." He leaned back against the green silk pillows next to Iphicles and turned to look at him. "Or are you?"
What did Tithonus see? "I'll do whatever you want." With the silk curtains closed, the air heated, and he smelled musk, myrrh and apples.
"That's not what I asked you. Don't you want to make love to me?"
"Yes. I want you. You're beautiful," he said, panicking, and took Tithonus' heavy cock in his hand. "I'll show you." Iphicles bent down, closing his mouth over the slick head.
Tithonus pulled him back up. "Not so fast. We've got all night. And I want you to enjoy it, too. That turns me on."
"I'm enjoying it. I'm very excited."
"It doesn't show." Tithonus stroked Iphicles' limp cock. "I can fix that. That's better," he added, as it started to fill. "I don't need your heart, just your body. Now touch me."
Just one night. Iphicles moved closer, tight against Tithonus, and closed his fingers again around the hot smooth skin of his cock.
"Do what I do." Wetting the thumb of his free hand, he ran it over the swollen head of Iphicles' cock. Iphicles imitated him, and Tithonus moaned. "I forgot how good that feels."
They stayed like that, side by side, stroking each other, their cocks stiff and slick with precum. Iphicles felt Tithonus watching him, so he kept his eyes open.
"So who're you thinking about?"
"You," Iphicles said. A half-truth. "How you feel in my hand. How your hand feels on my cock." It felt too good. Wrong.
Tithonus reached out and turned Iphicles' face toward him. "No lover in the world wouldn't forgive you for being with me. So relax and enjoy it." The kiss was soft and sweet, just a brush of lips. "That's not so bad, is it?"
When Tithonus kissed him again, longer this time, hand still stroking, Iphicles opened for him. A hot tongue slid into his mouth, explored it with languid precision.
"You're so sweet," Tithonus said. "I've missed this so much." He tangled his fingers in Iphicles' hair and kissed him again, tongue more insistent.
Iphicles arched into it, then an odd familiarity struck him, and he drew back, breathing hard. "Sorry. It's good. It's great, really."
"Do I remind you of someone else?"
"Someone you don't like?"
"Oh, no. It's not that. It's... I love him."
"Iphicles, you and I...it's just physical. You know what it's like to be alone for years? How good it feels when someone wants you? I chose you because I wanted you to be the one. You're different than the others. You seemed out of place, like me. And you're beautiful. But maybe I made the wrong choice."
"You didn't make the wrong choice. I do know what it's like when the person you love leaves you. I'm sorry." This time, he meant it, and let Tithonus know it in his kiss. It lasted until his lips were sore, and he was thrusting up into the warm hand.
"Stay on your side like this," Tithonus whispered, and crawled down the bed. "Just do what I'm doing."
When the wet mouth engulfed his cock, he moaned and let Tithonus' hard salty flesh slide between his lips, licking the head the way Tithonus licked his. Fingers caressed the sensitive skin of his shaven balls, then a tongue flicked at them. Drowned in pleasure, Iphicles sucked harder, touching back, squeezing lightly until Tithonus writhed against the silk.
With a last suck, he returned to Iphicles' side, grey eyes sleepy with lust. "Your cock was leaking into my mouth. Taste." Tithonus extended his tongue, letting Iphicles suck it. "My turn." And he licked Iphicles' tongue. "I'd love to come in your mouth, then kiss you," he said. "I'd love to come all over you and lick it off, then kiss you. I'd love to come inside you and drink it out, then kiss you. And I'd love for you to do that to me. All of it. I can't get enough of you." He licked Iphicles' bottom lip, then rolled on top of him, holding his arms above his head. "But I won't do any of it unless you ask," he added, rubbing against him. "And not because of the gift. Because you want me."
"You're so much like him." Iphicles turned his head and kissed Tithonus' wrist.
Above him, Tithonus smiled. "Your lover?"
"He's not my lover. He just fucked me for a few weeks, then never came back."
"But you love him?"
"Stupid, I know."
"Just complicated. Maybe he left because he felt like you did and couldn't handle it." Tithonus rocked into him. "You haven't answered my question."
"Yes. To all of it."
Tithonus' eyes darkened. "Good. Then I'm going to start by coming on you." He sat up, straddling Iphicles' thighs, his cock aimed at Iphicles' breast-bone, and started to stroke himself.
Iphicles stopped him. "Let me do it." With his own cock slipping between the velvet cheeks of Tithonus' ass, he grasped the thick shaft and moved his hand in a teasingly sedate rhythm. "Is that good?"
"Better than that." Sweat pearled on his chest, splashed down his body. "I love how you look right now. Don't stop."
In the dim light, the head of Tithonus' cock shone wetly, and Iphicles leaned forward, licking it clean. "I can taste how close you are," he said, settling back against pillows damp with his own sweat.
"Yes." He hissed the word, covering Iphicles' hand as he started to come. "It's so good. Iphicles..." His back arched, but his half-closed eyes never left Iphicles' face.
Bursts of hot, sticky semen splattered across Iphicles' chest, staining his nipples. Some caught his chin, and his tongue went out. It melted there, sweet like peaches. Sweet like Ares. All immortals must taste like that, he decided. He rose up on an elbow and let the last drops drip into his mouth before Tithonus eased him back, his breathing still ragged.
"Love how you look in my come. Now don't move. Let me clean you."
Iphicles' cock pulsed with every long, sensuous lick over his chest, and he wound his fingers in Tithonus' hair, drawing him closer. He watched as the come crystalized on his skin, and Tithonus lapped over and over again until it disappeared. Even after, he teased Iphicles' nipples with his tongue and teeth until they turned red and tender, and Iphicles whimpered. His ass ached, felt hollow, and he thrust up, his cock hitting Tithonus' stiffening flesh.
Then Tithonus kissed him with his sweet, come-covered tongue. "What do you want, Iphicles?" He edged backward, sliding his hands under Iphicles' knees, bending them. "You want to me to lick you everywhere?"
The question carried a memory: a hill overlooking a field of yellow flowers, dotted with blue and white striped tents, all flying the Macedonian flag. No way Onomarchus would win against that many of Philip's men. Ares had been right, and he'd gloat for weeks. Then the familiar crackle of air, and Ares appeared, pulling him into the forest. ‘You want me to lick you everywhere, take away the sting of defeat?' Then he laughed and took Iphicles for the last time, hard against an oak.
"Yes," Iphicles said to Tithonus. "Everywhere. Make me come. Now."
"I like when you growl." Tithonus grinned and circled the base of Iphicles' cock with his thumb and index finger, squeezing the blood up. The head, already full, bloomed purple, before it disappeared in Tithonus' hungry mouth. He pulled back almost at once to let Iphicles see his tongue gliding along the crown and into the slit. With the head dripping, Tithonus lapped at the sides, then the smooth skin of Iphicles' groin.
Overwhelmed, Iphicles wanted to stop him, but could only lie there, shaking. When Tithonus suckled each of his balls, he heard himself make a sound, a low-pitched humming, and understood for the first time why the cicadas sang. It was the purity of sex, perfect the way death was perfect: no edges, no split spine, no pain. Just clean and round and sweet, like an apple, or a summer insect's cry.
Iphicles gave himself to it, gave himself over to the pure perfection of Tithonus' tongue as it pushed inside him, as it filled him, so clean and wet and hot, and the only thing wrong with this incredible happiness, this bliss, was that Ares had left him, that it wasn't Ares who made love to him with his tongue.
"Be in me," he said to Tithonus, and spread himself wide. "Be in me now."
Tithonus kissed Iphicles' thighs, each ball, his cock, then knelt between his legs, which wrapped around his waist. The head of Tithonus' cock pressed against him, then slid in. "It's been so long. Too long. You're perfect." Leaning forward, he kissed Iphicles as his cock filled him.
The kiss never broke, only deepened with every loving thrust, and their eyes stayed open, drinking the other's pleasure, swallowing the other's moans so that their bodies thrummed inside the green silk nest. Tithonus touched his cock, one light touch, and Iphicles came, his arms tight around the broad back, sucking his lover's tongue. The body above his tensed, and Iphicles felt the length inside him expand, then spill a hot stream of semen.
Shuddering, Tithonus collapsed on top of him. His cock stayed hard, though, like Ares' did, and Iphicles thrust up into it until his lover rolled off, lying on his side. "That was incredible, but I'm not finished with you yet. On your hands and knees." His muscles weak, Iphicles obeyed, and Tithonus knelt behind him. "Can you feel it running down your thighs?"
He nodded, then rested his cheek against the pillow. The first swipe of Tithonus' tongue startled him, and he hugged the pillow tight, spreading his legs. "More."
The warm hands squeezed his ass. "Don't worry. I can't get enough of you. Not since the first..."
The rest of his words were lost against Iphicles' ass, and he was penetrated again and again, rubbing himself against Tithonus' darting tongue, his cock hardening. Everything faded, and all he cared about was getting that tongue deeper inside him. "More," he repeated, loving the wrongness of it, "more." His hole got wetter and wetter, hotter and hotter, and his plea turned into moans as the soft fucking continued. Then the tongue vanished, and Iphicles turned to beg for more, really beg, like a whore, because it felt so good, but Tithonus shoved his cock in, big and hard, with a startling, familiar force, and Iphicles cried out, coming in a blinding wave that lasted forever.
After that, Tithonus wouldn't leave him alone. He sucked Iphicles' cock again, and Iphicles sucked him, and put his tongue inside him, then his cock, and drank his come from Tithonus' mouth, cock and ass. The sheets twisted, the dark green pale with semen, and they never stopped. Orgasm after orgasm, kiss after kiss, and outside the cicadas thrummed with love.
They ended up in the center of the bed, wrapped in each other's arms, and Iphicles remembered that Tithonus was his lover, not Ares. It didn't hurt anymore, though, and he lay with his head against Tithonus' heart.
"Dawn's almost here," Tithonus said. He held Iphicles' drained cock in one hand, stroking his shoulder with the other, and kissed him between each word. "It's time to ask for the gift."
Somehow, spending the night with Tithonus confirmed his decision. "I can ask for anything I want, right?"
"That's the deal. You spend the night with Ti--with me, and you can ask for whatever you want." More kisses, along his chin and over his cheeks.
He took a deep breath of the sea-salty air. "I want Ares to love me."
The kisses stopped. "What?"
"You said I can have anything. What I want is for Ares, the god of war, to love me."
Tithonus sat up. "Iphicles, I can give you eternal youth."
"I know that. That's not what I want. I want Ares. I'm in love with him, and I want him in love with me."
"You don't need it. Ares... Ares is a bastard. He's not capable of showing emotion. He...runs from it. Plays games. He's a manipulator and a liar."
"I know Ares, Tithonus. I know what he's like. Trust me. I've spent my whole life hearing about how evil he is. It doesn't matter. I've been with him and I love him, and I want, more than anything else, for him to love me."
Tithonus took Iphicles' face in his hands. "Listen to me. You'll never again have the chance I'm giving you. Zeus is serious about never giving anyone a shot at immortality. Aphrodite begged him for months, crying, on her hands and knees. This is your only chance. Ever. Take it. Ares isn't worth it. He'd do anything to avoid telling you how he felt, even taking another form...Try and understand what I'm saying, Iphicles. You'll die if you don't take my gift. Ares' love... It's... You already..."
Iphicles shook off the hands. Tithonus' near-panic confused him, but he didn't have much time left. "This is also my only chance to get Ares to love me. I can't do it on my own. I tried, and he left me. I don't mean anything to him, I never did, and I want to mean everything. I want him to love me and be with me the way you were tonight. Nothing matters more. Now give it to me, Tithonus. I know what I'm doing. I understand it means I'll die someday. But I've spent my whole life knowing that I'll die. I have a brother... Anyway, trust me. I've thought it through, and it's what I want."
"I'm begging you, Iphicles--"
"It's almost dawn. Give it to me. You owe me."
Tithonus said nothing, but stared at him for a long moment. Then: "Fine. It's done."
"Don't you have to do something? Touch me, or speak to Zeus or talk to Ares?"
"No. It's done. It was done a long time ago." He opened the curtains and stood. "When you leave the temple, Ares will be there, waiting for you. And he'll love you. I've got to go now." Tithonus kissed him, and it was a different kiss now. Tender but sad.
"Thank you," Iphicles said, but Tithonus was gone and wouldn't be back for another seven years, and he was alone in the green silk bed. He pulled on his tunic and left the room, walking along the temple's pale green halls until he came to the bronze doors. As he pushed through them into the rosy morning light, the crowd cheered and the cicadas sang. For a moment he stood at the top of the steps, letting his eyes adjust, looking for the familiar dark figure.
When he saw Ares, standing tall at the back, Iphicles smiled, humming under his breath, and walked toward him.