"No, I refuse this," she said, shaking her head. "We're simply not talking about this."

"Then talk about something else. You're due for a break from your work, and I need a distraction to take my mind from my aching thigh. Some Valkyrie refused to aid me in my distress."

"You deserved that."

"Probably," he allowed.

"Very well. What do you do as a mercenary?"

"I specialize in usurping thrones. They call me the kingmaker." Bragging now?

"Then you're an insurrectionist."

"You're assuming that I'm taking thrones from their rightful owners."

She gave a nod in his direction, as if conceding his point.

"But mainly, I fight wars. The Lore is a violent place, good for business," he said, then snapped his fingers. "Oh, wait, I almost forgot...you're a pacifist."

"That's not a bad word."

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"It is when you're in the war industry."

She quirked a brow. Then seeming begrudgingly curious about his job, she asked, "How did you become a mercenary?

"I'd trained as a soldier to fight Omort." At nineteen, Cade had been thrown into a brutal training regime among Rydstrom's soldiers - who all despised him. For months, Cade had gotten his ass handed to him. Finally he'd learned he had to become faster, stronger, better than any demon in the army.

Ultimately, he had been, and people had taken notice. "In idle times between campaigns, I got offered some jobs." As Omort grew more powerful, crushing revolt after revolt, there'd been more idle times than not. "I had some success, and it snowballed. I've got a crew of forty-five under my command."

"All demons?"

"Mostly," he said.

"Do you discriminate against non-demons?" she asked.

"We don't discriminate. As long as the applicant is vicious, has killed before, and is willing to do so again, he's hirable."

"And how many women are currently in your crew?" she asked pleasantly.

"I walked right into that one, didn't I?" he said, but she merely raised her eyebrows, awaiting his answer. "No females have applied. Much. Hardly any at all. Hey, if you stay Valkyrie, I'll hire you. The PhD mercenary."

"That'd be a waste of study."

He grew still. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It just seems like your occupation would utilize more brawn than brain."

"So the bigger your biceps, the better your military strategy and battle tactics? Is that what you think?"

She studied his face. "You're sensitive about this."

"What? I'm not bloody sensitive," he said, but his tone was gruff. "Back to you. You told Nïx that you were one code away from getting your PhD. What kind of code?"

"It's complicated."

Did she think he couldn't even follow along? That made his hackles rise. "The big, dumb demon has been known to understand a few things over his thousand years of life."

She gave him another studying look, as if he'd just proven her theory. "You really want to hear about my project?" When he nodded, she said, "I call it barbed code. I intend for it to be used in the private sector in computer applications to protect proprietary data. Eighty-five percent of all companies have reported data loss due to hacking or unauthorized access."

"You're telling me that many companies use codes?"

"Everyone uses codes. Or at least, anyone with a computer does. When you receive an e-mail, it's encrypted, until your e-mail program decodes it. An online banking transaction and even paying a speeding ticket online are code-heavy applications."

She turned, shifting her body to face him more fully, obviously loving this subject. Which disconcerted him.

If she was so keen on this stuff, then she'd want a partner who could discuss it with her. It pissed him off that she and that tosser spoke a language he could never know.

Once again - you can't bloody have her anyway!

"Cadeon, are you even listening to me?"

"What? Yeah, was just thinking about...how http always turns to https when I carry out a transaction."

"Exactly!"

Good save.

"Https provides an additional level of encryption." She eyed him with new interest. Bloody good save. "But every computerized code is still breakable. Every single one can be decrypted by brute-force computing."

"What's that?"

"Imagine a thousand computers working twenty-four hours a day on breaking a single code. That's BFC. So the general idea is to make a code so convoluted and complex that no one would have enough BFC available to crack it. But theoretically, it's still hackable."

"So what would your code do? Why call it barbed?"

"I want it to protect itself - by any means necessary."

"How would that be possible?" he asked.

"If it senses it's being decrypted, then it would cyber-attack the decoder."

He gave a laugh. "Figures a Valkyrie would develop a combative code."

Her eyes flashed silvery. "This is very serious." He'd already known how devoted she was to her work, but had never seen her this passionate about it. "BFC won't work if my code takes out those thousand computers simultaneously. And imagine the implications for other uses."

"Like what?"

"Take, for instance, your antivirus software. It would no longer merely guard your computer against viruses, it could track the virus back to its origin, then send a mutated version to cripple the culprit's own system. Even e-mail applications would be affected. If you received spam, your computer would dispatch ten thousand spam messages directly back to the sender's real address, shutting down his system."

"I do believe that this is serious. It sounds like it could completely wipe out viruses and spam in no time."

"It totally could! The people behind them steal time from our lives, forcing us to defend against them or to deal with their fallout. And I resent it."

"So what's the holdup?"

She looked away as she said, "My code...attacks everything. Even friendly systems."

"The warrior code goes on the rampage."

She sighed. "That's correct."

"And you have to figure out how to make a code recognize a friendly from a foe."

With a nod, she said, "Imagine sending your coworker over in accounting a virus times one million. The results would be catastrophic to chance a friendly."

"So what are you doing now?"

"Trying to communicate with the code as a friendly to study exactly how it kicks my tail each time."