Some time passed, I do not care to say exactly how much, before Ali returned to court. Though I rarely ventured outside the palace in those days, the odd rumour found its way back to me, and in the intervening period. Ali had opted to stay in the Jolly Boar Inn outside the city walls, and it just so happened that the innkeeper was a friend of a friend’s. The impression I was given was an exotic one: Ali stayed confined in his room, drinking heavily, singing, and enjoying all sorts of merriment without need of a companion.
At the same time as the tales of an alcoholic desert man started to reach my ears, Bouvard stumbled across the scrap of paper upon which Ali’s poem was written (he was absent at court on the day of Ali’s arrival, having spent the day in the chambers of his preferred mistress). I gathered this knowledge at dinner one evening.
“The Oriental’s verse was crude indeed,” Bouvard remarked to Johann, whose response made out that Ali – ‘the Oriental’ was their pejorative name for him – had been “equally crude in both appearance and manners.” Though I managed to hold my tongue, Felix Ambrose launched into a passionate defence of Ali’s verse, which he mixed with a polemic against the traditions of the romantics. The feud soon escalated, as was often the case, and in his usual manner Bouvard rose from his seat and glared at Ambrose, his eyes green with envy at the skill with which the man before him had pointed out the manifold flaws of Bouvard’s poetry (indirectly, of course), and pointed one of his silk clad arms at Ambrose.
“Let us see, then, if your deeds match the supposed quality of your verse,” Bouvard hissed. He strode over to Felix Ambrose, removed his right glove and hit the poet across the face three times before casting the glove to the ground. “I challenge you to a duel.”
There was complete silence in the room. It had been decades since there had been a duel of honour in the court, longer still since one in which both combatants had emerged from the incident alive. Ambrose’s terror was reflected in his face, the graveness of the situation apparent to him from the moment Bouvard uttered the terrible word. Failure to accept the challenge would mean losing his honour, the price for which was expulsion from the court. I feel it necessary at this point in the narrative to add a little word on the physique of the two poets in question: while it has been established that Bouvard was a tall and strapping man, not yet thirty, Felix Ambrose was quite the opposite: his was a portly physique, just slightly taller than Ali, and though broad his sedentary lifestyle rendered him a little hunched. Ambrose was a pallid man prone to dyspepsia.
Being a civilised man, I refrained from watching the duel, but I am told it was a quick affair. Ambrose was hit in the upper thigh by the first of Bouvard’s lunges, and with that both of their seconds called for the duel to end. Ambrose stood up with the help of Bouvard, who shook his opponent’s hand – I do not doubt he was gleeful at his victory – and helped him to the infirmary.
Court became rather one-dimensional hereafter, as Ambrose’s recovery was long and protracted, and was at one point slowed by gangrenous complications, thus leaving Johann and Bouvard to push their own compositions down the King’s throat. Ali’s second visit to court occurred in the wake of the news of the duel (news of which spread, as one would expect, like wildfire across Varrock and then into the countryside, and eventually, I am told, became an item of gossip at the rather less impressive court of the Duke of Lumbridge).
Ali’s second visit to court was less remarkable than the first; not only was the man a familiar sight, he had also gone to considerable effort to make himself presentable. The innkeeper had clearly washed his robes and turban, while his beard was neatly shaven. Upon hearing of Ali’s arrival, the King ordered the Second Lieutenant of the Guard, who was complaining about the minutiae of the budget for the city guards, to be silent and delayed the business until the following day. I confess to being eager to see the man again.
Entering into the court, Ali prostrated himself as before, without having said a word, and placed before his head another scrap of paper. A guard carried it, without the due delicacy, to the King. The poem was as short as before.
The words that cut through one man’s soul and pride
Are more lasting than any endeavour;
And if a man uses his tongue to chide
He risks losing tongue and more, forever.
As per the previous encounter, the King paid the usual sum and Ali was on his way, likely to return to his heavy drinking. Though I have never been told as much, I strongly suspect that this second encounter with this fresh and innovative new poet, at a time when court poetry consisted solely of Johann and Bouvier, first gave the King the idea of inviting Ali to court.