The King’s court had always been a place of petty rivalries and one-upmanship, to be sure, but the lengths to which Bouvard went in his quest to spite and discredit Ali were simply staggering. The invective spread through the palace like wildfire, and it was not long before it became an item of gossip amongst even the commoners. For the most part, the popularity of Ali was only bolstered by what became a very public attack by a man whose own public appeal was fading rapidly. I and several others created a very private pressure group with funding from the literate middle-classes, aimed at persuading the King to remove Bouvard from the court. At no other time was the once great poet so downtrodden, never before was his position at court so precarious.
If there were a way to measure animosity, then surely that which existed between the poets would outrank all previous measurements. A once professional conflict became a personal one, and was soon to spiral beyond all expectation. There is no point in denying the part that my pressure group played on events, nor the terrible turn of events once the masses became aware of the machinations of the poets.
A fortnight passed before Ali responded; it was a fortnight of cold, hard stares, persistent snubbing by both parties, and shoulder barging whenever physical contact was made. The King was largely unaware of the fighting, as one expects from a monarch more engaged in the affairs of state than petty court squabbling, but he knew of the furore surrounding the invective, and confided to me one evening that he oft considered yielding to our pressure group. In spite of this, it is reasonable to say that the King kept aloof of such things, and it was for this reason too that the situation was allowed to reach the heights that it did.
Yet, when Ali did respond, it was with great purpose and clarity – and, of course, in invective. The verse soon made its way around the city, to the rowdy inns and filthy, promiscuous alleys, reducing Bouvard’s status to that of the butt of jokes within a matter of days.
Those men, so bold of pen as to deride
The works of others in a verse filled with pride,
Mean no harm – how else can they defend their
Lack of size and strength? In their verse they hide.
As the mocking intensified over the weeks Ali began to rest on his laurels, the brief war of words seemingly at an end. Tensions between the two men, however, did not show any signs of dissipating; rather, they only rose. The King did his best to ignore the awkward dinners with the court poets, in which Bouvard and Johann often made backhanded, racist remarks towards Ali, who made sure to ignore them on all occasions.
The challenge had been made, as far as Ali was concerned, and it was up to Bouvard to accept it. Every day that passed, Bouvard’s reputation was further dented by his inertia. Ali’s invective had been a clear and damning challenge to Bouvard’s honour, and just because there was no glove on the ground did not mean that Bouvard was blind to it: the rumour was that the great romantic was scared, indecisive, procrastinating. I myself noticed how, in spite of his jibes at Ali, Bouvard never went very far in his mocking (at least, not as far as the once confident poet would once have gone).
Career considerations are what eventually ended this period of intense and sustained tension between the two sides. Bouvard’s reputation soon degenerated to that of a coward among even the lower orders in Varrock, and was at risk of spreading across perhaps the entire Kingdom, at which point the prospect of it spreading abroad and ruining his chances of patronage from other courts would be a risk. If he was officially declared a coward in the next census, the King, by law, would be forced to remove him. Ali’s provocative poem had served its purpose — Bouvard was left with no choice but to act.