On his twelfth birthday, the noble and idealistic Prince Lilimond comes before his father the King. Lilimond complains that the people are starving, and wants money from the royal treasury disbursed to relieve their needs. The King is surprised at this. He questions his ministers, and the Lord Chamberlain and Treasurer assure their master that conditions are satisfactory — there are always some beggars, of course, and some people always murmur and "blame others for their own misfortunes." The King is loathe to disburse large store of coin, since he plans a grand ball and tourney and carnival for the court.
Prince Lilimond tries another tack. Before the assembled court, Lilimond solicits his father's promise to grant him one boon. Lilimond asks to reign as king, with all the royal powers, for one day. The king feels that he cannot deny his son; the date for his one-day rule is set for seven days in the future.
Lilimond and his tutor Borland spread the word that all of the land's beggars should come to the royal court that day; each will receive a gold coin to salve his wants. Soon a flood of supplicants is manifested in the capital. On the crucial day, the councillors warn the prince that he will be approached by many frauds and charlatans; his dispensation will empty the coffers unless he distinguishes the truly needy and the pretenders.
The prince sees the truth of their words; he examines the supplicants one by one, and weeds out those in fine clothes, or those who wear gold rings with their assumed rags, and silver buckles on their shoes. There are so many pretenders, in fact, that only a threat of whipping inhibits them.
In the end, the truly poor are relieved, and gold remains in the coffers. Borland the tutor realizes that his guidance of the Prince has been naive, and that those who beg may not be the same as those who truly need. And Lilimond apologizes to his father for his presumption in supposing he could criticize and correct the King's reign.
Baum's story draws upon one the now less well-known nursery rhymes, which reads:
- Hark, hark, the dogs do bark,
- The beggars are coming to town;
- Some in rags, and some in tags,
- And some in velvet gown.
In this story, Baum seems to take a "pro-establishment" and "status-quo" attitude toward the needs of the poor. Contrast his different attitude in "The Story of Tommy Tucker."