The Kingdom of Xylar , one of the twelve city-states of Novaria , has a peculiar custom for choosing its kings, each of whom serves for a five-year term. At the end of that period he is beheaded in the public square before an assembly of foreigners, and his head cast into the crowd. The man who catches the head is drafted as the next king. The latest beneficiary/victim of this arrangement is Jorian of Kortoli , a powerful and intelligent man who has trained extensively for a life of adventure, but who is hampered by garrulousness and a weakness for drink and women. Having served out his term as king in a reign characterized by both great accomplishments and increasing despair, he ultimately appears resigned to his fate, though in fact he is determined to cheat it.
He successfully escapes his beheading with the aid of a Mulvanian magician, the saintly Dr. Karadur , who provides a spell granting physical access to the plane of the Novarian afterlife. This turns out to be our own world, in which the souls of Novarians are reincarnated. Jorian's brief excursion there is a satirical romp in which he is frightened by a passing giant truck, has a mutually uncomprehending encounter with a police officer in a patrol car, and is very glad to get back to the familiar dangers of his own world. These include an encounter with a homicidal wizard and his giant squirrel familiar, along with the succor of a distressed damsel who proves more trouble than she is worth.
Linking back up with Karadur, Jorian is confronted with the price of the sorcerer's aid; securing for him the Kist of Avlen , a legendary repository of ancient magical manuscripts. The novel follows his adventures as he attempts to both fulfill his service and avoid the agents of Xylar, duty-bound to abduct him back to Xylar for the beheading ceremony. Jorian's quest takes him through much of the known world, including the exotic lands of Mulvan , Komilakh and Shven , before ultimately returning to Novaria. Included in his adventures' bill of fare are the rescue a consignment of maidens destined for the block from a fortress full of homicidal retired executioners, romancing the centuries-old serpent princess Yargali guarding the Kist in order to steal it, matching wits with an unreliable and ineffectual god who appears to his worshipers in dreams, escaping sacrifice by a horde of angry beast men to their tiger god, enslavement and sale by treacherous nomads, and abetting a revolution in the priest-ruled city-state of Tarxia , during which a huge frog statue is brought to life.
The ultimate challenge comes at a great symposium of Karadur's guild of magicians hosted by the city-state of Metouro - the depiction of which provides de Camp with the opportunity to poke some fun at academic conferences and symposiums before getting on with the plot. The meeting is held in the fabled Goblin Tower , constructed from actual goblins transformed to stone. There Jorian becomes enmeshed in sorcerous politics as his patron Karadur naively presents the Kist of Avlen to the heads of his own faction, hoping thereby to advance its cause. Unfortunately, its use by these unscrupulous leaders cancels the spell binding the building's fabric together, freeing the goblins and bringing the tower crashing down. The protagonists escape but are left without resource. The outcome is particularly frustrating to Jorian; he had counted on Karadur's assistance in achieving his ultimate objective, the rescue from Xylar of Estrildis , his favorite among the wives he had as king, with whom he had hoped to settle down in peaceful obscurity in his home state of Kortoli .
The end of the novel finds him starting from scratch to recoup his fortunes by telling stories on a street corner.