Claudia knelt on the cold stone floor and gazed into the brazier. Cold orange flames were licking the air, dancing mockingly. She looked up and into the eyes of a nearby statue. Maria. The mother.
"Beata Maria," she began, her lips moving in speech not loud enough to stir the air. "You know I am righteous." She gazed into the crude impressions of human eyes that the sculptor had carved into the block of granite.
"I am virtuous. Far more so than the common rabble. You must believe me." A tear fell down her right cheek. Her knees were beginning to hurt from her penitent pose. Good, she thought.
"Then tell me, mother! Why do I still see her dancing? Why is her image still burned into mind's eye? Help me!" The statue gave no answer. Despairingly, she turned her gaze back into the fire. The flames danced higher and higher with a blazing heat, echoing the feeling she feared so badly. The brilliant colors leapt into the air. They almost looked as if they were dancing...
No. Claudia shook her head frantically. This was sin. It was sure to mean hell. She stood up and began pacing, her footsteps echoing into the darkness beyond the flames.
"Beata Maria, you know I'm not to blame! She has cast a spell on me! Please, please." She turned to the statue again. This time, it answered. Illuminated by the dull red light, the lips appeared to move.
Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa. My fault, my fault. Claudia backed away in horror.
"Please mother, save me from this gypsy witch! I can't help but see her. She is a woman! This is unnatural! This is blasphemy," she cried out. The statue seemed to smile mockingly at her. She knelt down on the ground again, the hatred she felt for herself gnawing at her insides. The pain in her knees increased. Yes. Punish the flesh. Burn the sins away. She lifted her hands in front of her and gazed upon them with tears in her eyes.
"How long must it be until I escape this prison of sin! The skin and bones wishes for nothing but the burning of the immortal soul. Maria, the devil is taking me. He is so strong and I cannot resist. You must believe me, mother. Save my soul," she whispered. Her eyes were once again drawn to the fire in front of her. She saw the shape of Esmeralda flitting about amongst the embers. That way was hell. It was hellfire. Eternal damnation. The statue spoke again.
Burn, burn. The light played off the sadistic features of the mother's face. Claudia gasped.
"Yes, you are right. I must burn the flesh. I must punish it with the very thing it wants." She approached the flickering logs and thrust her hands into the embers without hesitation. The pain washed over her like the most beautiful torture. Tears fell from her eyes and she fought not to scream. Clean, clean!
"Mistress Frollo!" A gust of cold air hit her back and she whirled around, yanking her hands out of the ashes. A guard was standing there in the doorway. She tucked her arms inside her robes discreetly.
"Yes? What do you want?" she replied in as icy a tone as she could possibly manage.
"The gypsy girl has escaped. No sign of her anywhere," he said. No! She cannot leave!
"What? No, never mind. Get out of here, idiot. Leave!" She shouted. Looking injured, the guard strode off into the distance. Claudia whirled back to the fire in a panic. Her hands were now an angry red.
"I must fix this. She cannot be allowed to leave. Esmeralda must pay for what she has done to me! She must burn, not I. I am not to blame for wanting her so badly." Claudia sank back to the floor, tears coming to her eyes. This time, when she saw the shape of Esmeralda dancing in the flames, she could not look away. She drank in every detail, and felt her hatred grow still more potent. Her beautiful black hair, her teasing glance as she moved so sinuously. Those green eyes, and that skin with amorous promises written across it. The witch.
"She must be mine," she whispered. "She must belong to me or the fires of hell." Claudia no longer remembered the statue gazing down at her prostrate form. The fire captivated her.
"I'll find her if I have to burn down all of Paris. She must be mine. And if she will not be mine, then only hell can claim her!" A scream of anguish ripped from her throat. It sounded small in the towering room.
"God have mercy on her," she prayed, staring at the blinding light. "God have mercy on me." But there was no reply.