"We have heard the testimony from both Eliza Brown and from a reliable witness," Takashi said. The demon's eyes fell upon the kneeling matron, icy as a winter morning. "Does anyone here wish to refute the evidence?" Predictably, not one of the assembled demons spoke and Takashi nodded.
"Very well, then. By our laws, Eliza Brown will be subject to the punishment we decide for her. But first, Ms. Brown will be allowed to speak, if she wishes."
Eliza bit her lip, averting her gaze for a moment. Uncertain as she was after hearing the testimony from Shinobu, she knew that this would be her last chance for mercy. She had to make her case now; she had to.
"Well, Ms. Brown?"
"I would like to say something," Eliza said, looking back up at the demon lord. Takashi's eyes narrowed, but he nodded.
"Very well. We will listen." Eliza took a deep breath and looked up at the assembled demons before her.
"I don't disagree that I committed an oversight and that I should have been more thorough in checking James's records," Eliza began, but angry growls from the assembled demons cut off matron's words. Takashi held up his clawed hand and he noise ceased.
"Hold, friends. Ms. Brown will be allowed to speak her piece, as is her due." To Eliza's surprise, it was Rin who spoke up.
"My uncle is right; she should have the chance to speak. It's more than she deserves, but it's her right."
"Continue, then, Ms. Brown," Takashi commanded.
"Er, yes. Ahem, anyway, as I was saying, that I don't deny that I should have been more thorough. But I didn't find their concerns about compensation all that odd; they hadn't planned on taking in a child and were most likely living on a budget. What's more is that the police officers who brought James to the orphanage in the first place had questioned his neighbors and they mentioned nothing about a second child either.
"Should I have questioned the fact that Miranda had a second child? Yes. Should I have taken the time to look into James's new living conditions? Yes. Should I have met with Spiker and Sponge beforehand? Yes. But here is my position, my lord: I am one woman caring for many orphans. I provide for them solely through the charity of others; I can't keep them at the orphanage forever. When the children have relatives, I have to place them. The system my orphanage is part of isn't perfect, but I do the best I can with what I have. And I tried," Eliza finished, directing her gaze at Rin, "to do the best I could with James."
For a moment, there was silence as the assembled demons drank in Eliza's words. The matron glanced around the room before returning her gaze to Takashi. The demon lord had lowered his chin to his chest, his eyes closed. If it weren't for his ramrod posture, Eliza would have guessed he had fallen asleep. However, Takashi's golden eyes quickly snapped back open and he raised his head to address the assembled demons.
"Eliza Brown has spoken and she has made legitimate points. We are aware of how society treats orphaned children; there is pity in many hearts, but a lack of those willing to adopt or donate funds to provide for them. I do not doubt that Ms. Brown made the best of her circumstances and I agree that she is not the only person to blame for James's past situation.
"However," Takashi continued, leveling his steely glances at Eliza, "the failures of others does not excuse your own. It was still your responsibility to look into the fact that James had a sister and attempt to seek her out. It was still your responsibility to make sure that he living situation you has arranged for him were suitable. And it was still your responsibility to make sure Spiker and Sponge were suitable guardians."
"And they weren't," Rin said, her ears twitching slightly as she spoke. "You claim you were doing the best you could, but your method for dealing with children like my brother seems to be dropping them off with the first relatives you could find. I believe that, despite the hardships faced by the orphanage system, you still have to account for the safety for the children under your care. And you didn't do that."
"Rin is right," Kenta growled. His wings unfurled slightly as he spoke, making the young demon look even more sinister. "We cannot speak for any other children you have placed with uncaring relatives, but I doubt James was the only child to be met with relatives who had no interest in a child's well-being."
"True, my son, true," Takashi agreed. "And Spiker and Sponge certainly were not interested in James's well-being."
"Forgive me for saying so, my lord," Eliza began. "But Spiker and Sponge are the ones who-"
"Yes, a pity they died before we could get to them," Rin interrupted, glancing sideways at her uncle.
"True, but I see no reason not show Ms. Brown one of the ways we deal with those who dare cross our family." Takashi raised his arms. From the shadows behind him, two demons marched forward, each bearing a velvet-wrapped staff with rounded tops and wooden feet. Setting them down, the two demons removed the velvet coverings and this time, Eliza did let out a scream.
Perched atop the staffs, their polished surfaces gleaming in the candlelight, were two human skulls. Eliza stared at them, her wide eyes taking in every detail of the preserved bones. Both of them boasted numerous cracks that, while carefully mended, were still plainly visible. But what had made the matron scream was, despite the lack of flesh and features, she recognized the two skulls. She had, after all, seen these two when they were alive: one with a thin facial structure and a slightly pointed nose and the other with fuller cheeks and in its mouth, the gleam of a gold tooth.