Only two people remember the manuscript tucked away in a back corner of the climate-controlled section of the Azdhag Imperial Archive. One is the archivist in charge of preservation of ancient manuscripts. The other is Rada Ni Drako. Hers is the next to last entry in the document, a bound list that goes back to almost five hundred year-turns before the Great Relocation. It is a list of Talon Oaths.
The Talon Oath is the single most sacred and binding promise and Azdhag can make. It constrains him (or very rarely her) in a way no other oath or promise does, and it is purely individual. The Lineage cannot compel someone to either make or break a Talon Oath, and even the King-Emperor thinks very long and hard before asking someone to violate a Talon Oath. As readers of several Cat Among Dragons books have seen, when Rada says, “I cannot say. I swore a Talon Oath to Shi-dan not to speak of the incident,” the matter drops and no one dares to push the topic. Even though Shi-dan is long dead, Rada still holds to her word, and the Azdhagi respect that word.
The Talon oath goes back to the days when the Azdhag were just barely civilized (for certain definitions of civilization) and the need arose for a way to allow individuals to take action and make agreements that were truly binding. At the time, there was also a religious aspect, summoning the Lone God to witness and to bind the oath maker, with spiritual as well as physical penalties for breaking the oath. After the Great Relocation, when worship of the Lone God died out, the seriousness of the vow remained, along with the physical penalties for failure.
Talons hold a special place in Azdhag culture, which is why swearing an oath on one’s talons is so deadly serious. Talons are the mark of civilized predators. They are tools for eating, killing, self-defense, writing, art, music-making, and fine craft work. They are a very obvious sign of health and strength, and something all Azdhagi, male or female, have in common. Control of one’s talons is learned very quickly as a junior, and Azdhagi are careful not to injure them. They are slightly controllable, and can be lifted off the ground if necessary for walking or grasping small objects and weapons and tools. Because of how they attach to the body, breaking off a talon is much, much worse than a human breaking a fingernail or a True-dragon leaving a talon in someone. For Azdhagi, it is similar to a human losing the top bone in his finger.
Although Rada’s “little claws” are almost nonfunctional by Azdhag anatomical standards, no one who has seen her fight dares forget that she has them. She uses a talon-shaped stick to write and eats with a fork or “eating sticks,” but she uses her claws to play the harp, although with the claw retracted, forming a hard tip on her finger, rather than extended. That is one reason she is accepted as an Azdhag male, along with her fighting prowess and, now, after over five hundred year turns of service, tradition. She’s become part of Azdhag society the same way the palace has – she’s just there, always has been, always will be. Thus her Talon Oath is considered as binding as that sworn by a native Azdhagi.
Not all Talon Oaths are entered in the manuscript. Private vows, and those made by a single individual to a single task (revenge, keeping a silent promise, rebuilding a Lineage’s fortunes) were not recorded. And the manuscript is sealed. How did Rada’s Oath to Shi-dan appear in it? She will not say. But she did open the manuscript for the last known oath maker, and she stood as witness for what came after.