Flashman meets Queen Victoria's cousin, William of Celle, incognito in a billiards hall and, without knowing his true identity, befriends him, before getting him drunk and leaving him in an alley with Shoe polish covering his buttocks for the police to find. However, his reputation as a valiant and down-to-earth soldier leads to Prince Albert assigning Flashman as the boy's mentor. Despite every attempt to avoid it, he finds himself in the Crimea showing William what soldiering is all about. The boy's unfortunate death does not allow Flashman to avoid involvement in the most notable actions of the Crimean War, including The Thin Red Line, the Charge of the Heavy Brigade under James Yorke Scarlett, and the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade.
Powered by fear and flatulence, he reaches the Russian guns in front of the other surviving members of the charge and promptly surrenders. He is taken into Russia (now Ukraine) and placed in the custody of Count Pencherjevsky. Here he reunites with Scud East, his old schoolmate, and meets Nicholas Pavlovich Ignatiev, a vicious Russian Captain.
Flashman and East overhear plans by senior Russian officers to invade India and end the British Raj. The two men escape from the Count's estate (thanks to a peasant uprising), but Flashman is recaptured by the Russians. Ignatiev takes Flashman with him across central Asia as part of his plans to conquer India. Flashman is rescued from prison by cohorts of Yakub Beg, led by his Chinese paramour. Then the Tajik and Uzbek warriors attack the Russian fleet using Congreve rockets captured from the Russians, which only Flashman knows how to use. Prior to the battle, Flashman was unknowingly drugged with hashish and is utterly fearless as a result, for the only time in his life. The Russian ships are destroyed and Flashman then travels on to British India.