Talons, those long, powerful, built-in daggers sported by all Azdhagi and True-dragons, play an important role in Azdhag culture. Rada Ni Drako’s semi-retractable claws are one reason she’s (grudgingly) acknowledged as a sapient being, despite her “disgusting” hair coat and cranial fur. For her part Rada has a very healthy respect for the damage Azdhagi can do with their built-in daggers, and avoids forefoot-to-forefoot combat, even training exercises, in part because of that.
While Rada’s claws extend and retract more like a Terran feline’s, the Azdhagi and True-Dragons’ talons lift. Technically, they are not true talons like a Terran raptor’s, in that they are not locked in the extended position. Instead they are a modified continuation of the final bone in the forefoot and operate by a hinge joint. The normal, relaxed position is with the tip down, resting lightly on the ground. The talons grow constantly to make up for the normal wear and tear of walking, and an Azdhag who is on bed rest for some reason must trim his talons, or he will have a great deal of difficulty walking once he recovers. In an extreme case it is possible that the digit would grow long enough to curve back into itself, but neither Rada nor any of the Azdhag healers she knows have heard of such a case.
The Azdhagi can move their talons through about two-hundred-seventy degrees of motion, tipping them back almost to rest against the top surface of the forefoot, and foreword to touch the “palm” of the forefoot. Most Azdhagi don’t stay flexible enough to bother with that, and most use the “normal” one-hundred-eighty degrees. By pulling the talons “up” (back), the Azdhag can grip with the lower digits far more easily. In fact, it is almost impossible to hold a small object securely with talons extended. That’s one reason why the gauntlets of the Palace Guard articulate so much, to allow the talons and the armor over them to tip up when the user “fists” his forefoot in order to grip a spear, grenade, blast rifle, or other object.
Some Azdhagi decorate their talons much as they decorate their bodies. Ornate talon covers come in and out of fashion, sliding over the digits and often secured with ornate ribbons, little chains, and other froo-froo (as Zabet calls it). Having designs painted on one’s talons shows one’s refinement, sense of style, (and wealth), and is usually practiced by females, courtesans, and pleasuremates of both sexes. Rada will never let Zabet forget the time she had the different currency symbols painted onto her talons. “Pretty, but not subtle, Boss,” as Rada put it.
Being able to walk with the talons up is a sign of great physical control. That’s why having wooden floors is such a mark of prestige: it is assumed that one’s family and guests (and staff) are of high enough rank to walk on them without tearing up the surface. Needless to say, most common-born Azdhag look at wooden floors as a silly affectation and a waste of good materials and are willing to pay through the muzzle for sturdy faux-parquet planks.
As one would expect, that Azdhagi utilize their talons for more than just committing mayhem (although Rada’s firmly convinced that is the preferred use.) They are sturdy enough to use as digging implements, especially in soft soil and sand, although a True-dragon’s flatter, broader talons are more efficient. Talons also serve as eating utensils. Rada’s “stunted” and “tiny” claws just don’t make the grade, so she uses a fork or “eating sticks” instead. Everyone uses spoons for soups or soft foods, and meats and other things arrive pre-cut, so the diner is not impaling an enormous, dripping hunk of something and trying to eat it without making a mess. (At least, not at court. Hunting camps are different.)
Calligraphy is also done by talon. The writer keeps one nail trimmed to a flat or slightly angled surface and writes by dipping the tip into ink, then applying it to the paper or touch screen. Downstrokes tend to be heavier than up-strokes, and curves fade slightly at the end because the writer must lift his talon or risk tearing the surface, giving Azdhagi talon writing a distinctive, shaded look, as can be seen here:
Rada’s improvised writing tools are considered poor imitations of true writing at best, and the subject of ridicule behind her back at worst. Several centuries ago, a few Azdhagi went a step farther and trimmed a second talon into a different shape, using it for a type of work called “talon painting” that is now highly prized by collectors (see “Southern Stars” in the collection Justice and Juniors). The finest of “handcrafts” are the “talon-cut” goods, and any item made by forefeet alone is considered more valuable than a higher-quality machine-manufactured good.
Given their importance, it is no surprise that the strongest vow or promise an Azdhag can give is a talon oath. To swear on one’s talons is to bind oneself until death. Other promises expire with the death of the second party, but a talon oath is forever. They are not made lightly: in her entire career as Lord Defender, Rada Ni Drako has sworn only one talon oath, and that to Shi-dan. Breaking a talon oath has grave consequences both in the world of the living and in the afterlife. In this world, if caught, the offender must face the Pack (or its representatives). They will remove his talons, which means cutting off the first joint of each forefoot digit. The he is expelled from the Pack, losing all property and lineage (kinship) rights. Since anyone who sees him knows instantly what happened, the offender is shunned. Because he no longer has a Lineage, when he dies, the oath breaker’s spirit will fade into nothing, not even fit for judgment by the Lords of Hell.
The True-dragons residing on Drakon IV do not place as much cultural importance on their talons. They respect the Azdhag practices, but have their own ways. While Rada adapts many of the Azdhag practices and absorbs more of their culture than she’s willing to admit, Zabet dar Nagali, True-Dragon, merchant, and general bon-vivant reptile-about-galaxy that she is, thinks the Azdhag are insane. Talons are tools and weapons, and can be decorative. Period.