As a bubble must burst when it grows too big, so too must egos eventually collide with one another when one has grown so much that it begins to crush the other. This is how it was with Ali and Bouvard. The former had grown so very large that he was beginning to press down on the latter as a wholesome wench might on a slight man.
In the royal palace, dinnertimes are the epicentre of social interaction. A courtesan once remarked to me that ‘everything happens at dinner’, and by in large this is true. Ali and Bouvard had never got on – I knew this much already from the many dinnertimes spent with them – and that particular dinnertime I could see that their animosity had scaled new heights. Many years before then I had been at court, and many years since I have been here, and never before or since have I ever seen such a hatred as I saw in Bouvard’s expression as he walked into the dining hall that day.
Perhaps I have not been clear, or perhaps I have misled. I speak of animosity between the two, but in reality I never saw any such hint in Ali. Oh, no! In those onyx eyes I saw a sharp and brutal mind, a man of immense talents who had no hatred for those men he ridiculed, Bouvard included, but rather played with their pride as a child plays with dolls. Even at the height of their verbal warring, Bouvard was always on the defensive, seeking to salvage his reputation, while Ali was merely having fun.
Anyway, back to dinner; more specifically, back to the beginning of the third course. Bouvard, whose eyes had not moved from Ali’s thin face, got up out of his seat as the course was due to start. Keeping his eyes fixed on Ali, whose discerning eyes were grimacing at the undercooked appearance of the vegetables, he rose, clutching a scrap of paper upon which was written Ali’s invective, the challenge to any man’s honour. In a loud voice, a little too high of pitch to sound threatening, Bouvard declared quite laconically, ‘I accept!’
The two met on the pavilion a half hour later. They stood opposite one another, Bouvard armed with a traditional rapier, Ali with a scimitar. I remember the events of that evening perfectly. Though it was late, the sun was reluctant to settle down that day, and the sky was bright, cerulean-tinged and dotted with clouds dyed by its light. Once the usual formalities had been exchanged, the arbitrator called for the duel to begin, and a thick and oppressive silence fell on those assembled to watch, the King among them. For what seemed like an age, the two men stood. Their inertia prompted the crowd to grow restless, tense. I was fidgeting. All of a sudden, Bouvard lunged, his technique as perfect as it had ever been, his movement swift and elegant. Ali was swifter. As Bouvard’s rapier made its way for his breast, Ali, in a single fluid movement, spun his scimitar round into the side of Bouvard’s hand just before the rapier made contact, severing it at the bone and instantly disarming his opponent, whose rapier fell along with the hand that once held it. Bouvard let out a meek purr, before collapsing to the ground unconscious. Those around me gasped (I was fascinated and horrified at once, and could not muster even the slightest sound). The stump that was his right wrist was leaking blood like an old boiler, faster than I had ever seen; the palace doctor rushed forward from the stunned congregation, already equipped for such an occurrence.
Ali laid his scimitar on the ground, stroked it with his left hand, and sat down at the edge of the pavilion, scribbling something on one of his scraps of paper. I later found out that it was his victory poem.
The folly of man’s honour is such that
It drives sitting ducks to take aim at others,
Or, as the great lion reclines on its mat,
Forces midges to pester their true lord.