I’d laughed at my mum for not understanding something basic about stats in the world, but the truth was there was far more about the world we lived in than anyone could know. If you knew exactly who you wanted to be and how to get there, good for you. You have now beaten out 90% of the world – and that’s only because you wanted something basic anyway. The most common way to plot your growth was to talk with someone who’d done what you wanted and convince them to tell you what they’d gotten, how they’d done it, and what they’d regretted. I’d talked with plenty of sailors and had a good idea of what it would take to become someone like Fink – he’d thrown his lot in with captain Coe and sunk all his XP into either his duties as a first mate or as a harpooner. Now some of his advancements were only eking out a fraction of a percentage each upgrade, but he was committed. I admired that. I didn’t want to be him.

If you didn’t know anyone who was where you wanted to be or if you couldn’t get them to share, there were libraries. At least, here in Antarus there were libraries. It was the best system I’d come across in my journeys. Libraries had stored information on level progression, professions, and more. They didn’t claim to be comprehensive, but even a basic town library could give a kid a good start.

I paid my two-gold admission fee with all the silvers from my pouch. I had mostly coppers left, so my advance was pretty much gone. It’s what I’d budgeted for. If I hadn’t had the money, I wouldn’t have bought the health potion.

“What would you like to look over?” the clerk asked.

“Nautical” I responded.

She handed me a sheet of paper with a long list of titles and numbers. It was rigid, hard and smooth to the touch. Some sort of protection spell so they didn’t waste paper, I guessed.

“Here’s a list of common applications and their locations in the library. Please use our sanitation station prior to handling and leave the books on a desk when you’re through.”

I nodded and scrubbed my hands at the ordinary wash station. Their towels were sure nice. Then I started picking books off shelves.

I’d paid the two-gold entrance fee because this was one of the nicer libraries, owned by the monarch. I could get basic “how to become a farmer” at any 5-copper library. Here they had specialty paths outlined down multiple progressions with various iterations. Yet I ignored most of these. I knew I didn’t want to be a harpooner, so I wasn’t interested in what super-rare ability a level 50 spearman with a hundred strength could do. When I was satisfied I’d picked out the books that would help me, I found a vacant table to stack them on. It was a motley assortment. I had the basic primer on “sailor” and a seemingly random collection of professions and specialties below that. I was organizing them by priority when a man approached me.

“May I help you, sir?” he asked in a deep, refined, and cultured voice.

“Are you an administrator, sir?” I replied with as much respect as I could imbue my voice with.

“Indeed I am.”

I was lucky. Administrators were a wealth of knowledge but weren’t obligated to help anyone. The wealthy could pay for their time, but no one joined a state-sponsored library out of a desire for profit. The library was mostly empty now, but I was still fortunate in catching this man’s attention.

“I advanced levels unexpectedly, and now I’m putting careful consideration into my future progression.”

“Very wise, sir. May I examine your stats?”

“Please,” I said. Without a doubt he had an analyze skill that would see right through my hidden page, but it was polite of him to ask and I immediately opened myself.

Name Domenic
Age 23
Race Human
Level 8
XP 3,280
Health 230
Mana 150
Stamina 220
Strength 18
Agility 20
Dexterity 17
Constitution 23
Endurance 22
Intelligence 15
Wisdom 12
Charisma 14
Luck 15
Swimming 14 Seamanship 18
Sea Legs 13 Rowing 8
Unarmed combat 7 Fishing 8
Small blades 5 Dirty fighting 3
Archery 3 Artillery 1
Observation 9 Analyze 7
Carpentry 3 First Aid 2
Lock Picking 2 Cooking 2
Traps 7 Stealth 5
Singing 2 Climbing 11
  Spears 1
Acheivements Lifesaving III
Perks Adaptable
  Heart at Sea

He looked over my page with an efficient, practiced eye. You could usually tell when someone was reading stats, but I wouldn’t have thought he was if I didn’t already know.

“My congratulations on your advancement, and on your development of the Lifesaving achievement.”

“Thank you.”

“It is clear you want to be on the high seas. I may remark that your perk Heart at Sea is rather unique. It is rare for even those with a great love of the sea to conjure that perk. Do you know much of it?”

“Uhh … no, just that I can’t stand staying on land for long.”

“An understandable reaction. In brief, it helps you develop your seagoing skills at a faster rate and increases your predilection for such skills. You have a ‘knack’ for the sea itself, correct?”

I nodded. “That seems about right.”

“But it is nearly a curse at the same time. As you say, you’re not one to join civilization on land. Distancing yourself from the sea is akin to heartache, no?”

“That’s right.”

“It is possible to remove perks, of course, but it is usually a very painful personal journey. In your case, it would be like losing your loved ones.”

“I don’t want to remove it!”

“I understand, I am merely attempting to help you understand yourself.”

I calmed my panicked tone and reminded myself how lucky I was this man was talking to me. “Yes, thank you.”

“And that leaves us with your current endeavors?” he continued, gesturing to the stacks I had on the desk.

“Yeah. I don’t know what job will keep me at sea as much as I want to be there, but I have a hard time imagining being a normal deckhand the rest of my life.”

“I dare say that would be a tragedy – in a decade or two you could do the work of a whole crew.”

I almost told him that wasn’t possible, that no matter my stats I couldn’t be in multiple places at once. Then I realized his insight had summed up my problems succinctly. I was an abnormality for a sailor. Captains didn’t want someone as unbalanced as me on their crew. As their officer maybe, but if I advanced at my rate it wouldn’t be long before some captains would feel too threatened to make me an officer.

“May I describe the basics of level progression and professions? I find that it often helps bridge gaps in people’s understanding.”

I nodded. I was confident I knew all this, but I’d be an idiot to turn down advice from an expert like him.

“People gain experience from two main sources – the completion of quests and the conquering of opponents. In your basic levels – usually 1-10 for humans, the XP is automatically assigned to level growth. This ends at level 10, where you choose the allocation of your XP.” He didn’t explain how you could unlock a profession at any level and most people in ‘civilization’ wouldn’t reach 10, but since that wasn’t my quandary he was giving me an abridged version. “You may continue to invest in levels and accrue the benefits that come with that – I see that you have yet to allocate a number of your attribute bonuses from leveling.”

Oh, yeah, this guy had a reeeeeally high analyze skill. Not just anyone could see things like that. “I advanced my attributes rather quickly through hard work. I didn’t want to artificially inflate my stats and lose out on the bonus.”

“Artificial inflation is a risk, but not one you need concern yourself overly with. We say a weak man who invests 10 points into strength has ‘artificially inflated’ his stats. If he continues to do nothing with his newfound strength, he will begin losing points. But if he exerts himself at all, he will keep the points, even if he doubles or triples his strength. I am obliged to also warn you against developing one attribute too far above the others. The body needs some balance. One man artificially inflated his strength to nearly forty but had a basic level of other attributes. He died. His body could not keep up with what his strength could accomplish.”

“I understand.” I had heard other horror stories. They grew more grotesque in the retelling. I didn’t plan to let any of my attributes lag – except maybe wisdom. I’d let that one grow naturally, as I didn’t have much use for mana regen. Having a high wisdom attribute didn’t instantly make you wise, anyway. Neither did a high intelligence score make you an instant genius. They improved your capacity by a measurable amount but didn’t fill it with anything. People had devoted their lives to proving that the same knowledge could be gained by low-intelligence people as high – it just took a lot more work. Wisdom was a bit more esoteric but the same convention applied.

“You may also choose to forgo further leveling, instead investing your XP into a profession and advanced skills. This does not grant you attribute bonuses to your body, but the rewards can more than make up for it, particularly if you are not in a profession that requires such attributes.”

“I’m afraid that wouldn’t work so well for me. I came within 10 HP’s of dying this last voyage. If I hadn’t already invested into Constitution, I wouldn’t be here.”

His eyebrow rose just slightly at the margin I’d made with my life, but I’m sure he’d heard or seen of closer calls. “I understand. These are the decisions you must make, and they are the conundrum of anyone with a profession.”

I nodded. I hadn’t learned anything new from his primer, but I’d met a lot of people and asked a lot of questions. I imagined his spiel rocked the world of more than one bumpkin. “Do you know of a specialty that would fit my … unique perk?”

He pursed his lips. “There are arcane measures …” he said slowly.

“Like what?”

“Certain practicing magicians skilled in alteration who might make your body more aquatic. In some lands – particularly the southeast of the land ring by the edge of the world – such individuals are prized and gainfully employed.”

I’d seen men like that. Some didn’t look any different besides their pruned skin. Others looked like they’d been crossed with a frog. ‘Gainfully employed’ meant they were hired to dive and scavenge. Among the Broken Isles they fostered clam beds for pearls, and in a number of lake-towns … well, they cleaned out the canals. I’d also heard of aquatic shapeshifters but had never met anyone who admitted to being one. “I’ve no desire to mutate myself. My whole philosophy is that I’m fine just the way I am.”

He seemed relieved. “Personally, I applaud your decision. I find such arcane uses distasteful.” I imagined ‘distasteful’ was as close as he got to swearing. “Might I recommend Herod on Aquatic Hunts? The life of men looking for rare alchemy ingredients may hold promise for you …”

He spent hours helping me, hours that could have cost dozens of gold if he’d felt like it. Not wanting to seem ungrateful, I listened to everything he said and followed him as he pulled out books that hadn’t been on my list. Most had flow-charts of information, with the required stats, accomplishments, scenarios, benefits and XP costs. I learned a lot that I hadn’t been able to glean for my years at sea.

Unfortunately, I had reasons not to go with all of them. Some were far too specialized – I could develop the skills with my knack but would only use them once in a blue moon. What would I do the rest of my life? Nearly all had the problem of spending too much time ashore. I was already itching, being away from the water. It hadn’t even been a day! How would I last weeks or months at harbor? The last category of professions seemed the most likely: command. What if I could get my own ship, sail her as I pleased? It wasn’t that I tried that to avoid responsibility, I just hadn’t promoted because I wandered too much.

The trouble with that was niggling within my mind even as I dreamed. I knew how often ships spent at harbor, or worse: at dry dock. A ship of my own was half promise of freedom, half chain of servitude.

The administrator seemed to sympathize. He knew I wasn’t just being indecisive, my perk had active effects. But what he was doing by showing me all the options at my fingertips was telling me that I wasn’t going to get my dream. I needed to pick something and suck it up when it was hard – or when I was ashore.

I understood this but wasn’t ready to accept it. I was being responsible by even thinking this progressively and coming to a library and all, right? I could indulge in a little childish refusal to accept reality.

When the administrator started repeating himself, I took that as my cue to bow out. I didn’t want to offend him badly enough that he dismissed me. He’d already been more generous with his time than anyone had a right to expect. I wrote down a list of the most promising professions and stuffed it in my wallet, thanking him profusely.

“I am glad to have been of service,” he replied with a miniscule bow and no visible trace of irritation.

The library wasn’t quite locking its doors behind me when I left, but it was late. I glanced around the street to be safe then made my way to rejoin the rest of the boys.

A note from captaink-19

Edited; thanks for the help in the comments!

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