1587. Three years after his enforced departure to London, Hew is reconciled with King James VI and recalled to Scotland.
He elopes to St Andrews with a young Englishwoman. The death of Mary, Queen of Scots has unleashed a wave of anti-English sentiment among the Scottish people, and fear and confusion in the king himself.
James will grant his blessing to their controversial marriage on the condition that Hew discovers what lies behind a painting cunningly contrived to prick the young king's conscience - an anamorphic death's-head with his mother's face.
Meanwhile in St Andrews, the death of a painter is troubling to Giles Locke, and the English Frances, struggling to adapt to a foreign town and culture, helps Hew find the link among the artists and intriguers of opposing courts, a quest for love - and life - requiring all his skills.