The narrator begins by asserting that he almost came to know a king once; more than that he came close to having a role in the king’s rule over a kingdom. The king is now dead, however, and so if he wants to get close to a crown again, it will have to be his own crown. He is currently forced to travel by train from Amjir to Mhow in India back in intermediate class because his recent fall into hard times has at least temporarily take him away from his usual accommodations in first class .And so as he shares a car among the lowest class of society, he spies a fellow traveler to far offshoots of his country’s empire and soon they are sitting down to trade stories of coming up against that part of travelling to India not found on the tourist agenda.
Neither the stranger nor the narrator has funds required to fulfill the man’s desire to send a message by telegram so instead he persuades the narrator to travel to Marwar Junction in search of the red-headed man to whom the message will be delivered. The message is cryptic, but not suspicious: “He has gone south for the week. “ After a warning from the narrator against posing again as a newspaper reporter, the other man confesses his plan to blackmail the Rajah of Degumber by threatening to file a report about his father’s widow unless he receives money not to.
As the neighbor exits the train, the narrator ponders over the many times before that he has heard of this same on and they always end the same way which is usually not very good for scammers like the stranger. While Indian officials are easily blackmail due to fear that something distinctly unpleasant and quite believable about them will be believed when read in British newspaper, the sad truth is that very few people outside the domain of localized power enjoyed by these officials really gives a whit about what they have done since very few newspaper readers back in Britain will ever find the urge to travel to these dark, evil pockets of a foreign land.
At Marwar Junction, the narrator locates the man with red hair and delivers the message. Afterward, he realizes the wise thing to do is report both the man on the train and his redheaded associate to the authorities. At least that will have the effect of getting them deported before they run into real trouble carrying out their string of extortion cons. Returning to the newspaper office where he works and relates the story to some of co-workers. Late at night, the narrator in his office, glad to be away from the heat of the night outside, when two men burst through the door demanding a drink.
He learns that the red-haired man is named Daniel Dravot and the stranger from the train is Peachey Carnehan. The latter informs the narrator that it is time to move on to Afghanistan where they have plans to become kings. They have come to him to examine books and maps to help them along. Peachey suddenly mentions a contract they have made to avoid the temptations of both liquor and woman during the process of becoming kings. The contract also has a loyalty clause demanding constancy and fidelity to each other. The narrator tries to warn the two of the folly of pursuing this plan with the suggestion that it means certain death. When that fails, he tries the extension of a job offer to keep them in Indian. Insisting they know the land having fought in the Second Afghan War, they merely turn to their books and maps and the narrator agrees to a meeting the next day.
The next he arrives at the bazaar where they are to meet but even after seeing them does not recognize them because of Dravot’s disguise as a mad priest and Peachey’s role as his servant. The men in the caravan heading to Afghanistan have no trouble buying their story, however, and invite them along for luck. What are supposed to be toys in the packs they carry are actually rifles. The money spent on the arms and the camel used to carry them along, they set off the Khyber Pass with the caravan. After ten days, the narrator receives news that two have made it at least as far as Kabul.
Two years after that, old crippled man with a shock of white hair appears at his office door, announcing that he is none other than Peachey. He spins a wild tale of he and Dravot ruling Karifistan as kings. The crazed tale includes killing the camels for food, murdering a man for his cart, killing the mules dragging the car for food and taking up sides with the winning party in a civil war among the Kafirs. At this point, Dravot seemed to go insane with power, acting like a king and ordering the natives around. He also conned them into thinking he knew Imbra, the idol god they worshiped. At this revelation, the people began to worship him.
Dravot’s reign was marked by negotiated peace settlements, land cultivation plans and even the establishment of a legal system. When Peachey made his way to a nearby valley and found the people there were starving, he brought them back with him to the first valley and gave them land. A visit to another valley and made peach with the chief of Baskai by threatening him if he did otherwise. When Peachey started teaching the natives to drill, he decided to take his newfound army with him to other villages while Dravot did the same elsewhere. Reunited months later, the two small armies had now expanded into a large single military unit. Dravot started to suggest that he was the offspring of Alexander the Great by then and boasted of great riches in their lands.
The realization of a kingdom and the crown to rule it eventually stimulated Dravot to end his military might and instead create a Freemason kingdom. To their surprise, the natives were quite familiar with Freemasonry which prompted him to declare him a Grand Master and announce his intention to build a lodge for initiation rites. Over Peachy’s objections, Dravot oversaw the transformation of their temple for Imbra into a lodge at which Dravot claimed to be the godhead.
Suspicions raised by one priest merely turned out to confirm his story in the eyes of the people while Peachey became content to take on the role of commander-in-chief. When Dravot decided that he needed a wife, Peachey reminded him of the terms of their contract forbidding this. Nevertheless, Dravot chose a bride, but when she was brought to him, she was so terrified at the prospect of marrying a god that she reacted by biting him on the neck, causing him to bleed profusely and reveal that he was not a god after all.
Dravot and Peachey took off for their lives with the natives following in hot pursuit. At long last, Dravot begged for Peachey to forgive him, promising to meet alone with crazed crowd behind them so that Peachey could escape. Peachey stuck to the loyalty clause and announced he would stick with his friend to end. When the natives reached them, they forced Dravot to walk out to the center of a rope bridge suspended high over a deep ravine. A slice of a blade send Dravot falling to his miserable death. They then turned their wrath toward Peachey whom they crucified. Having lived through to the next day, however, he was released and allow to go. Which brings him back to the office of the newspaperman, crippled and more than halfway to madness. Suddenly he decides to show the narrator what he brought back to India in his sack that he carried with him the whole way in order to keep him company. The narrator peers into the sack to see Dravot’s shrunken head topped by a gold crown.
The next day, Peachey suffers sunstroke after begging in the streets for too long. The narrator helps to transport him to a nearby mission where Peachey quickly succumbs. The whereabouts of Daniel Dravot’s withered head remains a mystery to this day.